Reading the Resurrection Narratives with Children

Issue XIII June 2007

During the 6-12-year-old years of development, the child’s mind looks at the world through new windows of logic, reason, and expanded personal experience. Reading the resurrection narratives with children in this age group serves well the needs of the children during this period intheir lives — honoring their new capacities and questions. But, it also serves well the needs of the larger Church —allowing the Church to grasp afresh both the shocking and healing nature of these ancient stories that lie at the very center of the Christian faith. Garrido examines the resurrection narratives using the keen insights of 6-12-year-old-children. Their insights lead us to what is most essential in the resurrection stories and help us to see how these stories illustrate the much larger story of the kingdom of God.

This paper was presented at Weaving Our Gifts: A Conference of Catechists, October 2006.

by Ann Garrido

Ann M. Garrido, D.Min. has been part of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd movement since 1996. She currently directs the masters program in CGS at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis and serves as a catechist at College Church on the campus of St. Louis University. She is the author of Mustard Seed Preaching (LTP, 2004).

Every year, during the Easter season, the Church reads and relishes anew the resurrection narratives. It recalls from the various Gospel accounts the disciples’ discovery of the empty tomb, the multiple appearances of the Risen Jesus, and, finally, the story of his ascension into heaven and the gift of the Holy Spirit. These stories, so familiar to adult Christians as to be considered commonplace, are particularly gripping for children between the ages of six and twelve.

During this period of development, the child’s mind looks at the resurrection through new windows of logic, reason, and expanded personal experience.  Often by this age, the child will have known someone who died, participated in the rituals surrounding death, and become aware of death’s harsh finality. Increasingly familiar and comfortable with a scientific perspective on the world, the announcement of the resurrection has a new capacity to jar their senses. Whereas before the proclamation “Christ has died; Christ is risen” was accepted with ease and joy, now it gives pause: What does it mean to rise from the dead? Was it just his spirit that rose or his body, too? How could that be?”

Furthermore, between the ages of six and twelve, the child develops a new social consciousness that makes the give and take of true friendship possible. The child is more aware of how relationships function, the rules that guide them, and also how they can be fractured. This strong social lens leads them to hear the resurrection stories in a unique way.  Fittingly, it is during this period that children often participate in the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist for the first time within their congregations. These sacraments, with their strong communal orientations, are frequently part of that new  social lens through which children read the resurrection accounts.  As a result, the six-to- twelve-year-old child perceives dynamic connections between the Bible and the liturgy in a manner reminiscent of the early fathers of the Church. Reading the resurrection narratives with children in this age group serves well the needs of the children during this period in their lives — honoring their new capacities and questions.  But, it also serves well the needs of the larger Church — allowing the Church to grasp afresh both the shocking and healing nature of these ancient stories that lie at the very center of the Christian faith.

The resurrection narratives are found spread across all four gospels without significant overlap in the details.1

Discoveryof EmptyTombMt28:1-8Mk 16:1-8(originalend)Lk24:1-10aJn 20:2-9
Appearanceto Maryof Magdala   Jn 20:11-18
Appearanceon Roadto Emmaus  Lk24:13-35 
Appearancein theCenacle  Lk24:36-49Jn 20:19-23
Appearanceto Thomas   Jn 20:24-29
AppearanceattheSeaofTiberias   Jn 21:1-17
Commissioning&AscensionMt28:16-20Mk 16:15-20Lk24:50-52Acts1:3-11 

Although the stories are situated at the end of the gospels, they should be understood to exist at the center of the Gospel. They are not the resolution of the climax, so much as the climax itself.  The resurrection narratives need to be conceived within the larger context of the paschal narratives, which, themselves, need to be conceived within the larger context of Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ entire life was about the Kingdom of God. It consumed him. In his preaching, he described in parables what this reign would look like. In his miracles, he gave concrete examples of what life would be like in the fullness of the reign. In his prayer, he begged God not to delay any longer the Kingdom’s coming. The Kingdom Jesus announced was nothing short of the reconciliation and renewal of the whole world in God — the forgiveness of all sin, the healing of all divides, the mending of all fractures, a new shalom among all humanity and, indeed, all creation.

Even where similar accounts exist, many of the details vary significantly. In the stories of Jesus’ passion, however, it begins to look as if this Kingdom was only a figment of Jesus’ imagination.  All of the hope that builds throughout his ministry is suddenly dashed. Instead of the community coming together, it is utterly fragmented. Jesus is betrayed by Judas and by Peter, two of his closest friends.  His companions abandon him in the Garden of Olives. The crowds who loved him now shout for his death. Every violence imaginable is perpetrated upon his body. Jesus, the hope of the poor and the outcast, dies and the Kingdom he proclaimed, it would appear, dies also. It was all a pipe dream. This is the story as Jesus’ disciples themselves relayed it on the road to Emmaus: He taught us to hope in the Kingdom; but that is clearly all over now.

As the Emmaus account proceeds, however, the stranger with whom the disciples are walking retells their story in a different light; in the Paschal Mystery, the Jesus who once preached about the hurt and the healing of the world chose to enter into that mystery with his very own body. In his person, he entered into the deepest wounds of our planet — the worst fear, the most horrific violence, the most searing grief. He incorporated the fracture of all humanity in his being. There was nothing that he did not experience. And now, though it looks like the end of his preaching, it is not. For he is going to show us, not only with his words, but also with his body, what reconciliation looks like—what the Kingdom of God looks like. He is not just going to preach about how God heals and forgives, he is going to live it out in our midst.

The resurrection narratives as a whole serve the same purpose in the Church as that stranger did on the road to Emmaus. They slowly reorient hearers into a new way of looking at things — a new way of considering death, a new way of perceiving Christ’s presence with us, a new way of grasping God’s modus operandi.  When we read these stories together with children, we slowly develop what might be called “Easter eyes” — a lens through which we begin to look at our contemporary world differently.

The resurrection narratives begin with accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb. Children younger than the age of six often receive the accounts of the empty tomb with joy. When asked, “How do you think Jesus’ friends felt when they discovered his body was not in the grave?” younger children will generally exclaim, “Happy!” Older children, however, will note other possible emotional responses. The discovery of the empty tomb was not originally a cause of rejoicing. The disciples did not know what had happened to the body. It could have been stolen. Wild animals could have violated the tomb. Resurrection was not the most likely option that came to mind.  The discovery of the open black hole in the side of the cliff would have only mirrored the open black hole the disciples felt inside their chests.

The reorientation begins with the proclamation of mysterious men clothed in white and a series of very personal appearances of the Risen Jesus to the very community that was most injured by his trial and death. There are two aspects of these appearances that most intrigue children. The first is the “physical-ness” of the Risen Jesus.  He is not a ghost, all of the stories emphasize, but has a real body. He can ingest food and drink He has wounds that can be touched and penetrated. He can kneel on the seashore and build a charcoal fire to fry fish.

The “physical-ness” of the resurrection often comes as somewhat of a surprise to children raised in a Western consciousness much more influenced by Greek philosophy than Jewish. They often think that the resurrection was the resurrection of Jesus’ spirit — in line with popular language that they hear when someone they know has died: “Grandma’s spirit has gone to be with God.” To hear that it was not just Jesus’ spirit, but his body, too, that was resurrected is regarded as somewhat bizarre. It is an important point, however. What happened to Jesus is an image of what will happen to all of creation in the fullness of God’s reign. In the Incarnation, God  shows that the human body — and indeed physical matter itself — is not foreign or abhorrent to God, but beloved. The kingdom of God that Jesus preached has little to do with heaven as it is traditionally conceived. The kingdom of God is not about salvation  in another world, but the salvation of this one. It is about what earth will look like when entirely permeated by God’s presence.  Again, what God did in Jesus’ resurrected body is a sign of what God plans to do to all creation: fill it with an unquenchable light and life.   It is not just our “souls” that God saves but our bodies as well.

The second aspect of the resurrection narratives that captures children’s attention is Jesus’ “unrecognizability.” In almost every account, when the Risen Jesus presents himself to his closest friends, they do not know who he is. Children often ask about this point and enjoy the pondering possibilities.  On a personal note, I remember as a child being perplexed by this very issue. When I asked my priest why no one recognized  Jesus, he told me that perhaps Jesus was wearing different clothes. I found this very unsatisfactory even at the age of seven. When I asked my mother, she thought that perhaps Jesus’ friends were crying so hard that they couldn’t see well. This, too, seemed an inadequate answer. There is, of course, no one clear response to this question. After a long time of sitting with these stories, however, and discussing them with children, it seems clear that unrecognizability is not just a quirk of the resurrection, but a central part of the message. It is too great a point of interest to be peripheral.

The children have pointed out that perhaps the simplest answer is that the Risen Jesus didn’t look anything like he did before he died. Obviously, he looked like an ordinary human. Mary Magdalene thought he was a gardener. Cleopas and his companion thought he was a fellow traveler. One has to think they’d have noticed if he was glowing or shimmering or something. But he didn’t have the same physical features as he had before. They recognized the mystery person as Jesus when he did something that they had known to be characteristic of him. For Mary, when she heard her name spoken, it became clear to her who this was. For Thomas, it was in the act of touching Jesus.  For Cleopas, it was the breaking of bread. For Peter, it was the abundance of a catch.  Henceforth, Jesus will be recognized not by sight, but by symbolic actions. Jesus is initiating his friends into a new way of being in relationship with him — new ways of recognizing that he is present even when they can’t see that he is there with their eyes.

In theological language, we might say that Jesus is cultivating within the early Christian community a “sacramental imagination” — a capacity to know the presence of the Risen Christ not by sight but by sign.  Such an imagination prepares the Church for the sacramental life in general. After the Ascension, disciples of Christ will no longer see him in his earthly form. But, they will know that he is still with them when they bless and break bread together, when the water of baptism is poured, when they lay hands on the sick.  And, if they can recognize his presence in these ways, they will begin to be able to recognize his presence in a myriad of other ways: in the outcast and the poor, the Gentile, the Roman, the unborn, the unclean.

For children, the sacramental presence of Jesus provides a critical link between the scripture that they read and the liturgy that they experience. They cling to the belief that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is always with his sheep. He loves them so much that he lived every moment of his life for them. He loves them so much that he is willing to die for them. But, in death, he cannot be apart from his sheep.  He rises so that he can be with them still. And, when he ascends into heaven, he still is not willing to be apart from them. Until that day when they can see each other face to face, he chooses to remain present to them sacramentally.

For the six-to-twelve-year-old child perhaps coming to the table for the first time, the connections between the resurrection narratives and the sacramental presence of Christ in Eucharist are particularly striking. But equally important to them are the connections they find between the narratives and the sacramental presence of Christ in Reconciliation.  Each of the resurrection accounts, as asserted earlier, is a story of reconciliation. One by one, Jesus returns to each of his friends who has been so hurt by his traumatic death, and makes peace with them. One by one, he calls their name and makes himself known in a most particular and personal way that differs for each disciple. One by one, he knits them back into a community. He gathers them back into a flock.

The parables of mercy that he related in his preaching about the lost coin being found, the lost sheep being rescued, and the lost son coming home are all enacted by Jesus after the resurrection. And when we participate in the sacrament of Reconciliation, the children note, the same Jesus reaches out his hand to grasp us and draw us nearer.

At the end of the forty days of resurrection appearances, the disciples are in a different place than they were at the beginning. They have a new relationship with the empty tomb. Their shock and grief has evolved into understanding, into a new way of looking at the world.  Once they hoped to see the kingdom of God, now they have lived it. Robert Schreiter notes, “The meaning of the resurrection had gone from being a concept without a clear meaning to an experience of forgiveness, healing, peace, and reconciliation. The disciples had gone from disappointment and confusion to a boldness in proclaiming the message of what God had done in Jesus. 2

Each year, in the rereading of these narratives during the Easter season, we hope that the same transformation that took place in the disciples will take place within us — that we, too, will come to grasp something of the depth and breadth of the mystery of the resurrection and Christ’s ongoing presence. Reading the narratives together with six-to-twelve-year-old children helps make such transformation possible. With their keen insight, emerging out of their particular interests and characteristics at this stage of life, they illumine what is most essential in the resurrection stories and help us to see how these stories illustrate the much larger story of the kingdom of God.  They help us to recover a sense of surprise and awe and delight in the Easter season: The tomb is empty! He is with us still!


1 In this paper, when I use the term “resurrection narratives”, I intend to include not only the accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb, but also the multiple appearances of the Risen Jesus, through the ascension and gift of the Holy Spirit. When I say that there is not significant overlap among the narratives, I mean that, like the infancy narratives, many of the stories are not recounted in more than one gospel.

2 Robert Schreiter, The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 97.

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