Using the church year to teach the mighty acts of God
Dirk is five. He wiggles a lot in church. Sings some. Talks too much. And doesn't get much out of the sermon. Sometimes a musical instrument, a choir, or a change of banners and colors catches his attention—but not often enough. Usually worship is words and ideas rather than the concrete objects, people, and events that have meaning for children. So Dirk returns to his crayons.
How do we share the good news with Dirk and other children like him? Experts such as Jean Claude Piagel have made us aware thai children learn best when learning becomes tangible—when they can touch, feel, smell, and taste as well as hear. Many worship leaders have discovered that the warm celebrations and vivid colors of the church year can satisfy some of this need for involving the senses in worship and teaching the children about time.
In the Greek there are two distinct words for time: chronos and kairos. The first is related to the chronology of time as we know it and live it during our brief sojourn on earth. The second has to do with the fullness and fulfillment of time—God's time.
In our world, storm clouds are gathering on every horizon— AIDS, toxic waste, nuclear disaster, poverty, defoliation of the world's forests. Today's children need to know that our particular times find their ultimate meaning most often in retrospect. And that our secular history is only a piece of The Story.
As Christians have traditionally understood, the liturgical year is an excellent way of teaching both children and adults the core stories of the faith and focusing their eyes on God's time.
In the Worship Service
What makes the church year such a valuable learning tool is that it so readily translates into the concrete. At its best the liturgical year is a grand mix of color and feast. Drawing attention to these colors and "holidays" takes minimal effort.
Aniependium. Start with the: colors. Many churches use colored cloths (also called antependiums or paraments) which cover the communion table, lectern, or pulpit and are changed with the various seasons. Why not place these cloths as part of the worship service? Even if the choir normally doesn't process into the sanctuary, have them do so on the Sunday that
marks the begining of a new season. Let the minister(s) and a family of the congregation (including the children) lead the way, carrying the cloth of the new season.
Once the choir has assembled, make a visual statement by removing the previous season's cloth(s) and laying the new one(s). Including children in this act will make the experience more meaningful for all the chil dren, even those in the pews, for they will be anticipating their opportunity to participate in a similar way.
If your church presently does not have antependiums in the liturgical colors (white, purple, red, and green), why not ask for volunteers from the congregation to make them? Then dedicate each "gift" during the appropriate season in the liturgical year.
Stoles. Ministers who wear robes with stoles might consider making a dramatic moment (perhaps a children's sermon) out of an exchange of one season's stole for another. Sometimes these stoles are decorated with symbols that crystalize the meaning of each season (see box).
Repeat this dramatic moment or sermon (and other ways in which you have chosen to highlight the changing seasons) at the beginning of each new liturgical season. Children enjoy anticipating the familiar.
Banners and Bulletins. Ask volunteers from your congregation to design and make banners to highlight the changing seasons (see RW 8). Families could present these banners along with the antependium on the appropriate Sunday.
Children's bulletins could be printed on paper that reflects the seasonal color. At the beginning of each new season the bulletin could contain stories, games, and puzzles that might help children understand the church year.
These tangible visuals (like the memorial of stones placed near the Jordan) stimulate our children to ask "Why?"—giving us the opportunity to respond with a recounting of the faith story.
Holidays. Forget not the "holi-days"! Don't let them slip by unnoticed. Pull out all the stops for a grand celebration. Let the children see that our faith is a faith of great joy and celebration.
Children aren't particularly impressed by subtle seasonal changes in hymn selections or even by powerful preaching. To help them reexperience the joy of the pivotal events of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, our services should surround them with concrete visuals that appeal to the senses.
All-church processionals give children a vivid tabloid of community and unity. Drama, dance, glorious music (vocal and instrumental), as well as sacramental visuals such as lifting up the cup and bread at the Lord's Supper, underscore that the holidays we celebrate are of great importance.
In the Religious Education Program
The church school is an excellent place to teach children more about the liturgical year (see box, p.9).
For example, make a liturgical calendar for your classroom to help mark the passage of Sundays throughout the year. Each week have children use a marker to indicate in which season the current Sunday falls. (Watch how they eagerly begin to anticipate the coming of each seasonal and color change!) By making the calendar circular, you can help the children understand that the liturgical year is an annual and continous way of remembering the mighty acts of God.
In the Worship Center at Beechwood Reformed Church we have a circular wooden puzzle, much like the calendar described above. When we first present the puzzle, we take time to talk about the seasons—their colors and their meaning—in relation to the faith story. Then we invite the children to make their own calendars and to work with the puzzle itself.
Also in the room is a felt liturgical calendar on which the children can place felt turkeys, pumpkins, flowers, and other symbols of a more secular calendar. This calendar, designed by one of the teachers in the Center, helps the children understand how our time relates to God's time.
The same principles can be applied at home. Bring reminders of the liturgical year into your home by using napkins, candles, and flower arrangements in the seasonal color. Make a point of displaying beautiful pictures or art prints that capt ure and define the seasonal themes.
Plan celebrations related to the liturgical year. Sources such as Family Celebrations Around the Church Year by Carol Myers (Reformed Church in America) and To Dance with God by Gertrude Meuller Nelson (Paulist Press, 1986) are filled with family celebrations that encourage children and parents to weave together the strands of our time with God's time.
The liturgical year—its value lies in helping children (and the child in every adult) become spiritually sensitive to what time and whose time it really is.
Teaching the Church Year
The following ideas have been adapted from the lower elementary level of the Alleluia curriculum, published by Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis MN.
Create a six-step liturgical-year path on the floor (see descriptions of steps below). As the children arrive, have them examine the path, explaining that each color represents a part of our church's celebrations. The path is like a whole year of worship and celebration in the church. Permit them to walk over the path. (These "steps" can also be prepared in a smaller version, which each child can color and staple together to form his or her own calendar of the liturgical year.)
Ask the children to be seated around the path. Tell them that the color of each step is the color used to celebrate a season or special day in the church year. The church year is different from our calendar year. It begins not in January but during the season when we get ready for Jesus'birthday—a season we call Advent.
Step 1. Advent (blue). A time in the church year to get ready for Jesus' coming to earth. Advent means "coming" (Advent candles).
Hand the Christmas symbol to a child to place on the step next to Advent. Continue to have the children mark the steps with the appropriate symbols as you briefly describe how the seasons remind us of what Cod has done for us.
Step 2. Christmas (white). The celebration of Jesus' coming to be our Savior (manger).
Step 3. Epiphany (white and green). The season when we celebrate the three kings coming to find Jesus. Jesus came for all people everywhere (king's crown).
Step 4. Lent (violet). The time when we remember Jesus' death to save us (crown of thorns).
Step 5. Easter (white). The resurrection of our Lord, when we celebrate with great joy that Jesus rose from death to live again (butterfly).
Step 6. On Pentecost (red) we celebrate God's sending the Holy Spirit to us.The Sundays after Pentecost (green) remind us how to live and grow in our Christian lives (leaves).