Sunday, April 20, 2014

"On children's participation in the liturgy: some Easter observations"

Fantastic article at Faith and Theology.  Ben Myers is such an entertaining writer, and this is just a wonderful piece.  There's more, and I recommend going to read it all; this is from the second half of the article:
It was Easter day, and it was not yet dawn. My children and I had spent the previous day at the circus, and we had got home very late. So they were not in optimum operating condition when I shook them awake at five a.m. with the whispered news that Christ is risen. "He is risen indeed," my son growled back at me, with what I thought was a rather petulant emphasis on the word indeed. I dragged the little blighters out to the kitchen. I fortified them with cups of tea and biscuits. Chocolate biscuits, you understand, on account of Easter. Somehow we all got out of our pyjamas into clothes and shoes, and a few minutes later we staggered bleary-eyed off to church for the five-thirty Easter liturgy.

Now I will not be giving away any secrets when I inform you that my six-year-old son is not famous for his churchmanship. Not once has he ever been mistaken on the street for a cardinal or for St Francis of Assisi. I say this not to impugn his character but only to explain that the little chap will not sit quietly through a lengthy Easter liturgy at the crack of dawn merely on the principle of the thing. The boy won't just sit there and take it like a man. He has – children are so taxing in this regard – he has to like it at the same time.

And this morning, reader, he liked it. It was not one of these puny compromise liturgies either. It was very Easter, very Anglo-Catholic, the whole shebang. Gathering in the dark around a fire to light the paschal candle. A procession with candles into the dark cold church. The choir and the hymns and the incense. The many many scripture readings. The not-particularly-short homily. The filling of the font and the renewal of baptismal vows. The prayers and the gifts and the sung communion liturgy. The organist doing things on the organ.

The centrepiece of the service was a vast and very beautiful sequence of readings, each followed by a short prayer. When we started at the beginning of Genesis, the world was still buried in darkness. By the time we got to the Gospel it was brightest day; the magpies were warbling their Easter antiphons; the church windows had bloomed with colour. Here is the list of readings in the order that we had them:
  • Gen 1:1-2:4a
  • Gen 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13
  • Gen 22:1-18
  • Ex 14:10-31; 15:20-21
  • Isa 54:9-14
  • Isa 55:1-11
  • Prov 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6
  • Ezek 36:24-28
  • Zeph 3:14-20
  • Rom 6:3-11
  • Antiphonal reading: Ps 114
  • Gospel reading: Matt 28:1-10
I haven't tallied up the exact number of verses, but let's just say it was about half the Bible, give or take a few minor prophets. Never would such an audacious feat of reading be attempted in any tailored-for-children program, whether of the liturgical babysitting kind or the paint-and-play-dough variety.

And yet my son – six years old! – a boy! – he liked it. No, that is putting things still too mildly. He had a blast.

But before you start psychoanalysing the little tyke and checking his temperature and whatnot, I will come right out and tell you why he liked it so much. For the reason is very simple. The boy had a candle in his hand. A burning candle. If ever you want to command the full respect of a six-year-old boy, give him Fire. That is the way to a boy's attention, if not to his heart. That is the way to show him that you mean business.

This morning while the readers went on with their heroic reading vigil, while the long Lenten night gave way to a great and dawning joy, my son clutched his candle. He stared longingly into the flame. He stuck his little thumbs into the wet wax and dribbled wax on to his hands. He practised breathing on the flame to make it nearly – but not quite – go out. He counted all the other candles in the room. He sized them up with a professional eye, comparing flame to flame, before finally determining that his own flame was the finest of the lot. And after each reading he punctuated his subtle reveries with the response to the reading: "Amen!"

Later he was also allowed to pour the water into the font when we remembered our baptisms. And I have never seen him pay more attention to the eucharistic mysteries than he did today, when a huge glass bowl full of Easter eggs was placed on one corner of the communion table. My son watched that table like a hawk. He watched it with a candle burning in his hand. From the look of contemplative scrutiny on his little face, you'd have thought he was Thomas Aquinas.

That is how it was this morning. 


As far as I can tell, it's not that the liturgy is inherently inhospitable to smaller people. The great symbols of our worship are things that children instinctively love and understand. Indeed, they are such good honest things that even adults can understand them: water, bread, book, flame.


When my son held his candle on Easter morning and bellowed out the church's great "Amen" after every reading, was he just experiencing a child-friendly version of the real thing? Was his rapt waxy-fingered attention anything less than genuine worship, since even with his limited understanding he was able to draw upon the symbols of faith and to make himself at home within their world of meaning?

And if there had been no hypnotic chocolate Easter eggs on the communion table, would my son still have called out the ancient Easter greeting as I was tucking him into bed tonight? "Christ is risen," he called to me. I had already put out the light. I had turned to leave the room. The paschal call came to me across the lonely gulf that forever separates the adult from the world of children. Across the chasm my son's call reached me. I turned to him and in the half light I saw his expectant face turned up towards me. His eyes waited for the reply. An adult, a man of broken dreams, a barely-believer, I whispered my faith thinly back across the divide, hoping (knowing) somehow my son would hear me: "He is risen indeed." That was the last and truest thing we said to one another. Then the boy sank into sleep and the man left him there alone, and neither of them knew the things whereof they spoke.

I have to say I think people are starting to get this now.   The church is changing, slowly but surely, and starting to understand and make use, again, of "these symbols, as glorious for their simplicity as for their depth."

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