He suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives, though ever crucified.
The other day my son said to my wife, “Talk about Jesus.”
It’s hard to replicate the exact sound of this command. The boy will get interested in subjects and say Talk more about it in the way that some kids might just keep asking Why? So there are times when before bed he might say to me, “Talk about snakes.” Here, the impulse comes both from a place of genuine interest and a place of antagonism toward sleep (the old delay tactics that we all remember).
I would like to think that our household is full of Christian stories and ideas and images. Certainly, at the very least, I am aware that our children will never “catch” the faith if all they get of it is an hour of pew-sitting once a week (even if, in a clergy household, that pew-sitting is relentlessly mandatory: this particular boy sat through the whole Triduum when he was only a month old).
Nor do I think that every aspect of childrearing needs to be Christianized, as if every piece of music or book or movie or toy has to be “Christian.” Dinosaurs aren’t “Christian,” last I checked, and what three-year-old wants to live in a world without dinosaurs?
Anyway, it’s hard to measure success in contaminating the little ones with the seeds of truth, so it’s nice on occasion to discover that something has stuck.
And what sticks? I will admit that it warmed the cockles of this Anglo-Catholic’s heart to see the boy swinging an umbrella around the house saying that it was a thurible “like Kirsten” (our senior thurifer). Not all that long ago it seemed that everything around became a processional cross to which mommy and daddy were commanded to bow. It’s not all that surprising that these outer signs of the Church’s worship make their mark.
But what about Jesus?
My wife was supposed to “talk about him,” and so she began by saying something about how he loves us and we love him, and how he was born of Mary at Christmas, and so on — you know, the basic children’s version of Jesus. And the boy interrupted her: “And they put nails through his hands!”
I suppose that some Richard Dawkins disciple had better go ahead and call Child Services, because we’ve apparently exposed our toddler to the horrors of the crucifixion.
It’s not like we’ve been showing The Passion of the Christ in the background during dinner. We do, however, own several crucifixes — there’s one in most of the rooms of the house — and we’ve never avoided the subject when it’s come up. Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried; on the third day he rose again.
Of course, our child also has a fascination with death. Dead was one of his first words, mainly because we lived in the Deep South and had a lot of bugs that needed killing. We can’t very well keep him from the weekly offerings (mostly dead bunnies) that our cat brings to the door. Nor did we want to hide our children from the facts at a recent family funeral.
Death is, well, a part of life. I could add a lot more nuance, and a lot more theological language, but I’d rather have my children be weirdly familiar with death, at least conceptually, than grow up imagining that it’s something that only happens in hospitals under strict conditions with no effect on the living — or, more pointedly, grow up denying its existence and its tragedy in a pagan attempt merely to “celebrate life.”
All this leads me to a pretty simple conviction: We need to see Jesus on the Cross.
I still remember the lady at one church who said that we were “a resurrection church,” which apparently meant that crucifixes were out of place. I suppose I can at least understand an ultra-Reformed antagonism to images, but if we’re going to have any images (and a bare cross is still an image), I don’t really understand why we should avoid showing Jesus on the Cross.
I know that Jesus “didn’t stay on the Cross.” (He didn’t stay in the manger either, which doesn’t seem to stop the multiplication of nativity scenes.) But it’s the full story of Jesus’ life, including the nails in the hands and the humiliation of public execution, that saves us, and it is not at all morbid or depressing to focus on that moment in all its glory: “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). I don’t think that St. Paul is referring to an empty cross.
And how, after all, could I dare hide the true cross from my children? I don’t want them to grow up knowing a symbol of sacrifice; I want them to grow up knowing the Jesus who died for their sins. I don’t want them to grow up with an idea about Jesus the big Teddy Bear Above; I want them to grow up with a confidence that this God-man can stick with them through thick and thin, through good times and bad. I want them to understand that life in his body isn’t going to be super easy, and it may even hurt. Maybe they don’t have a complex theory of the atonement that can tell them what it means for Jesus to have nails in his hands, but I suspect that they’re closer to seeing what those nails mean than a lot of adults.
“Talk about Jesus.” Don’t hold back.
Fr. Sam Keyes is the chaplain at St. James School, and a doctoral candidate at Boston College. His other posts are here.
The featured image is “Crucifix” by Flickr user Jareed. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
 “Christ is alive! Let Christians sing,” by Brian A. Wren, #182 in The Hymnal 1982.