The Cross Tree: Involving children in Lenten worship

It was the season of Lent, the time when all God's people prepare to celebrate the mystery of Easter. Once again a branch stood in our sanctuary, stark and white against the rich oak woodwork. It was supported by a pot filled with heavy stones and covered by a black cloth.

Although the branch was empty now, most members of the congregation could remember what it had looked like in previous years by the time Easter arrived. Each week of the Lenten season our kindergartners and first graders had helped to create a cross in the worship center and hung it on the branch as part of our worship service. These crosses of many shapes and sizes had focused our attention on the cross and on the rich symbolism of Lent.

The idea for the cross tree came from the worship center staff. We had been looking for ways to bring children and adults together in meaningful worship that glorified God. Furthermore, we were eager to lead the congregation to prepare themselves during Lent by pausing to reflect on the cross of Jesus Christ.

These goals led us to include the crosses of Lent as part of the Call to Confession in the weekly liturgy of the season. Each week the children gathered in front for this part of the liturgy. An adult introduced a special cross, sharing and wondering about its significance, history, or symbolism. Then a child placed the cross on the cross tree, and the congregation sang an appropriate hymn. Draw Near the Cross, a small devotional book written by Ellen Skatrud-Mickelson (Augsburg, 1985), was our main resource, although we also gleaned ideas from Hosanna! by Sharon Lee (Harper & Row, 1988).

Symbols and Testimonies

The choice of materials proved to be an important part of the symbolism of the crosses. Each week the worship leader would first explain and /or wonder about the meaning of the materials with the children as they assembled the cross in the worship center. He or she would later share that special meaning with the congregation as the children prepared to place the cross on the branch.

The leader who presented the Cross Crosslet, for example, chose to glue a variety of seeds to the posterboard. The seeds, he explained, helped him to remember the spread of the gospel to all peoples in all lands.

The leader who presented the Passion Cross chose a piece of scrap aluminum, and she explained how she struggled with the shears as she cut the shape of the cross. She shared with the congregation the awe she felt when she pounded the holes into the metal.

Still another leader explained that she chose to color the Tau cross purple with a bronze edge, thus enabling us to recall the purple color of Lent and the bronze snake of the Old Testament story.

These personal testimonies gave integrity to the presentation of the crosses. The leaders helped us reflect on the fact that the cross was the most loving thing that God did for each of us.

Involving the Congregation

On the fourth Sunday of Lent we invited the congregation to bring crosses to church. We trusted that God's people would spend time during the week preparing their hearts and that making a cross would be a part of that preparation. We requested that they bring a cross they had made or that was special to them and place it in a basket on the back table.

The response was overwhelming! The next week the basket was overflowing, and the cross tree was soon heavy with the crosses brought or made by the people of God. Some crosses were fashioned from twigs and twine; some from yarn and paper; some were intricately stitched with gold thread.

Some crosses were jewelry. One of them had been sent from the Netherlands by a dear uncle. Another had been made by a son in summer camp many years before. Each cross was a precious symbol of the wonderful story of Christ and his sacrifice for us.

The Crosses of Lent became an integral part of our Lenten liturgy. Many people appreciated this quiet way of worshiping with the children. Others were thankful for what they were learning. One woman, touched by the awe and reverence of the children, made a needlepoint cross for each child who participated. Everyone benefitted by having the children actively participate in the liturgy of Lent.

On Easter Sunday the cross tree was centered in front of the sanctuary. The black cloth had been replaced by a bright white cloth. Lilies adorned the base of the tree. It was a beautiful symbol of Christ's death and his victory over the grave. Now we were ready to celebrate the mystery of Easter. Alleluia!

First Sunday of Lent:
The Trefoil Cross

It is the season of Lent, the time when all God's people are getting ready to celebrate the mystery of Easter. When we gather here to worship, we want to take time to think about the cross and remember that Jesus died for you and me.

There are six weeks in the season of Lent. Each week we will look at a different cross, wonder about how it reminds us of God's story, and then hang it on our cross tree.

A child presents the cross, holding it lovingly with both hands.

This cross is called the Trefoil cross. See the small buds at the end of each arm? (Touch each one) They help many people remember God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. When I look at this cross, I wonder if I should be like a bud on a bush or a tree in early spring—quiet, waiting, wondering, praying, and getting ready to burst open on Easter Sunday morning. Then I will be like a beautiful flower. I will grow and serve in God's kingdom. I will praise God. That's what the Trefoil cross makes me think of.

A child hangs the cross on the tree.

Hymn: Lift High the Cross
[PH 371, PsH 373, RL 415, TH 263]

Second Sunday of Lent:
The Tau Cross

It is the season of Lent, the time when all God's people are getting ready to celebrate the mystery of Easter. We are gathered here to share a symbol of Lent that helps God's people remember the precious story of Jesus' death and coming to life againóthe cross of Jesus Christ.

A child presents the cross.

This is the Tau cross. In the Bible, in the book called Numbers, we read about a time when God's people were wandering in the desert. They complained to Moses and to God. God sent poisonous snakes, and the people cried out to God for help.

Then God told Moses to make a snake and raise it up on a staff or a pole for all the people to see. If the people were bitten by a snake but looked at the bronze snake on the pole, they would not die, but live. It is said that the Tau cross is in the shape of the staff Moses raised in the desert for all to look at and receive life.

Pause for a moment, then say:

I wonder how this story of Moses and the bronze snake is like the story of Jesus and his death on the cross? (Wondering questions do not always require responses. Quiet reflection can he valuable.)

A child hangs the cross on the tree.

Hymn: "As Moses Raised the Serpent Up"
(The hymn could be sung antiphonally, with the children singing the second part.)
[PsH 2191]

Third Sunday of Lent:
The Cross Crosslet

During the season of Lent we are sharing some of the crosses God's people use to help us remember the great and wonderful love of God for us.

A child presents the cross.

This cross is called the Cross Crosslet. Look carefully. Can you find the four crosses joined together to make the Cross Crosslet?

This cross helps us to remember that Jesus died for all people. So we bring the good news of Lent and Easter to all those who live to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south. And the whole world will praise his sacred name.

A child hangs the cross on the tree.

Hymn: "Lift High the Cross" St. 1, 3-5, 7
[PH 371, PsH 373, RL 415, TH 263]

Fourth Sunday of Lent:
The Passion Cross

It is the season of Lent, the time when all God's people are getting ready to celebrate the mystery of Easter. We are getting ready for Easter by looking at different crosses that God's people use to remember that Jesus died and that God made him alive again.

Before we look at the cross for today, I want to tell you about a special way for you to think about God's great love for you during this season of Lent. In the bulletin you'll find a note inviting you to make or bring a cross to hang on our tree next Sunday morning. When you arrive at church next week, you'll find a basket on the back table. Put your cross in the basket, making sure to write your name on it and to include something to hang it with.

I wonder .. .

—what you might use to make your cross . ..

—if you will need lots of time to make a cross .. .

—if you need to be an artist. . .

—how many crosses will be on the tree next time .. .

—if the branch will be strong enough to hold all the crosses made by God's

people . ..

A child presents the cross.

Now let's look at the cross for today—the Passion cross or the Cross of Suffering. We remember that when Jesus died on the cross, he suffered for us. See the five circles or holes on this cross? What do they help you remember? They remind me of the wounds of the cross . .. Jesus' hands, feet, and side. They remind me that Jesus loves you and me so much that he suffered for us.

A child hangs the cross on the tree.

Hymn: "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"
[PH 100-101, PsH 384, RL 292,293, TH 252]

Fifth Sunday of Lent:
The Crosses of the People

We are gathered here today to remember that Lent is the time when all God's people are getting ready to celebrate the mystery of Easter. Many of you took some time this week to make or bring a cross to hang on the cross tree. Let's take a look at some of our crosses.

Have the children take turns presenting some of the crosses. As the children display the crosses, be sure to note different materials, sizes, and shapes. Encourage the children to comment on the crosses too. Present the cross that you brought and share its importance to you. Then invite the children to hang the crosses on the tree. When all the crosses are hung, gather the children at the base of the cross tree.

Now look at our cross tree! So many crosses! My friends, remember that the cross is the most loving thing that God did for you...

Look at each child's face, then gesture to the rest of the congregation and say:

. .. and for you.

Hymn: "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian"
[PH 372, PsH 264, TH 530]

Sixth Sunday of Lent:
The Cross of Triumph with Palm Branches

Today is Palm Sunday, the last Sunday of Lent. We have been getting ready to celebrate the mystery of Easter. We have been preparing our hearts and minds in a special way by looking at different crosses that God's people use when they worship God. Let's look at the cross for Palm Sunday—the Cross of Triumph with Palm Branches.

A child presents the cross.

There is so much to look at in this cross. The circle reminds us of the earth. The cross of Jesus rises up over the earth to show that Jesus has triumphed over the sin of the world. Jesus is stronger than sin.

The palm branches remind us of Jesus' journey into Jerusalem. The gospel of John tells us that the people welcomed Jesus by laying palm branches on the road in front of him. They shouted "Hosanna in the Highest!"

After a child hangs the cross on the tree, pass out palm branches to the other children and to the congregation. Invite everyone, children and adults, to parade around the sanctuary, waving their branches as everyone sings.

Hymn: "The King of Glory Comes"
[PsH 370, TH 240]

The hymns in this article were selected from the latest editions of the following hymnals: The Presbyterian Hymnal (PH), Psalter Hymnal (PsH), Rejoice in the Lord (RL), and Trinity Hymnal (TH).

Kathy Sneller (nksneller@tds.net), a preschool teacher and leader for Children and Worship at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids for twenty years, contributed the children’s ideas.