My favorite memories of Easter are painting eggs and making edible rabbits from pear halves using round scoops of cottage cheese for tails. While I realize this is not particularly religious in and of itself, this small foray into symbols as a child lay the groundwork for a deeper understanding of resurrection — new life — as an adult.
Symbols are powerful teaching tools
Mary Helen Marigza should know. The lifelong Methodist has led Sunday school since the seventh grade when she began teaching extemporaneously in her own class. As a young missionary in the Philippines, she taught English as a second language. “Working with young people is like working with students of a second language. You have to use simpler ideas and words to explain abstract concepts,” she explains. “Theological concepts are the hardest because the words can be so theoretical. I had to come up with everyday words to get the point across.”
Below are symbols that can be used to help explain the miracle of Easter to children.
Bulbs and foliage
Flower bulbs are an easy way to demonstrate a period of dormancy and rebirth. As Mary Helen explains,“Bulbs ‘die down’ in winter; they have to ‘die’ in order to come back in the spring. Many bulbs, such as the amaryllis, won’t bloom again if you don’t let the bulb rest.” She uses bulbs, and blooming lilies and amaryllis, to show that although Jesus died and was buried, he rose again like flowers in springtime.
Flowers are a key element of Easter decorations with many churches inviting children to adorn a Styrofoam or frame cross with blossoms. New foliage coming up after the cold of winter represents new life — or the continuation of life — and joy.
The beauty of a butterfly comes as a surprise when you consider the lowly cocoon. The worm goes into the cocoon in one shape, but it emerges in a new form. In a sense, it dies unto itself.
In the Bible story, Jesus was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb. “He laid in the tomb for three days. His friends were very sad,” explains Mary Helen. “But when they went to the tomb, they found out he was alive; they were surprised.” Mary Helen often makes cookies in the shapes of butterflies, as well as rabbits, lambs and crosses, for children (and adults) to enjoy during class. If you have the facilities, letting children make or decorate the cookies is a fun activity as well.
Lambs, rabbits, chicks make their appearance in the spring and represent new life, which is one reason they are popular at Easter. The lamb has a specific Biblical references and is directly connected to Jesus. I personally remember making a lamb cake from a three-dimensional mold and decorating it with fluffy white icing and a flower necklace.
“Jesus is called, ‘The Lamb of God,‘” says Mary Helen. “Older kids can understand the concept that a long time ago, people thought they had to sacrifice an animal to God — a lamb — to say they were sorry. They gave up something valuable to them — something that cost money — to atone to God.”
“When Jesus died, they realized they no longer had to sacrifice an animal. Jesus became our lamb – he took that place.” (For me personally, I was relieved for the lambs as well!) For younger children, the idea that a lamb is a new life, that Jesus was gentle and that he cared for people as a shepherd does his flock, is enough. Mary Helen uses cookie cutters, not only to make cookies, but also to draw outlines for lambs, butterflies, bunnies and crosses for art projects.
The empty cross
The empty cross is a symbol of the Resurrection because, as Mary Helen says simply, “He’s not there anymore.” The Crucifix emphasizes the suffering of the cross, but the empty cross represents Resurrection, transformation.
The cross and crown as symbols of Jesus
“This was a very early symbol for Christ,” Mary Helen explains. “It represents the crown of thorns, but moreover, many early Christians celebrated Christ as a King, which was a more familiar concept back then. He was a king as far as they knew; he was ruler over everything. It was also a way of saying He had overcome everything.” She often combines a cross cookie with a crown cookie laid diagonally over it when teaching this symbol.
Actually, we love the egg. Although people used eggs in traditions before the time of Christ, Christians adopted it early on because it was a symbol of new life and rebirth. As Mary Helen describes, in medieval times, most people were illiterate and Bibles were rare. “The only copy of the Bible might be chained to the podium!” Therefore, symbols, icons or plays were a great way to teach people who could not read.
According to the Rev. MaryJane Pierce Norton from United Methodist Discipleship Ministries, early Christian practices included giving up eggs for Lent and then eating them on Easter morning. Coloring the eggs is a way to express the joy of Christ resurrected.
How did Jesus rise from the tomb? It is a miracle. It is the reason we are joyful and the reason we celebrate but it is hard to explain. Symbols can help convey what words cannot – especially for your younger church members. And they will probably have some pretty good ideas of their own.
As 5-year-old Cadence sums up at the end of the video, The Importance of the Egg: Children and Easter, “It’s magic.”
We had great tips from our staff as well. Check out more easy ideas for celebrating Easter with children.
Community service day
The Rev. DG Hollum says his wife, also a pastor, recommends planning a community service activity for older kids. Making Easter baskets for needy children could be a seasonal twist on cleanups.
Easter egg scavenger hunt
Andrew Schleicher says his parents would give the children a clue to find the first egg, which had a clue to find the next, and so on. It eventually led to his chocolate bunny. The clues could include Scripture as well.
Making an Easter tree
The tradition of fixing a branch securely in a vase and adorning it with brightly colored eggs traces its roots to Germany. A variation would be to create ornaments based on Scripture.
Resurrection rolls and cookies
Josh Mullenix recommends making “Resurrection Rolls,” a recipe that includes symbolism for each ingredient. Crystal Caviness shared a similar recipe for “Easter Story Cookies" that are hollow (empty) like the tomb. Her family read Bible verses as they made the cookies.
Reading Easter books
Reading together was recommended by several staffers. Cokesbury has a number of children's books including, “The Unexpected King,” with activities, “The Easter Story,” about the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and many more.
Giving to charity
Another tip from Crystal is making a donation to Heifer International or a charity of your choice. She recommends having children create artwork of the animals your gift will supply and making the donation in honor of family and friends.
— Mary Helen Marigza has taught at many United Methodist Churches, most recently with Belmont United Methodist Church. Laurens Glass is a writer and a digital media specialist at United Methodist Communications. She may be reached at LGlass@umcom.org.