As a new mom, I used to look at my sweet, innocent pre-school aged son and wonder how to explain this Lenten season to him. Would I wait for him to ask me questions? What if he never did? Or worse…what if he did? How would I answer?
While the Christmas season found me gushing to my young son about the Christ child and a humble manger and that beautiful star of Bethlehem, Lent left me speechless. How was I to describe this very difficult part of Jesus’ story, of our story, to him?
The day when I had to answer that question came before I was ready. We were at church, lighting candles in the chapel when my then three-year-old looked at a particularly bloody Jesus nailed to a cross. “Mommy,” he asked me, “how did Jesus get up there?”
“You mean, how did that cross get hung up there?” I teased him towards an easier question to answer. He didn’t take the bait.
“No.” He pushed further. “Who put Jesus on there?”
Cue butterflies filling the stomach. Had I been wrong in not bringing it up to him first? Was this going to be a shocking blow? My mind scrambled for the right words. How much should I say? How deep into the story should I go?
Before I opened my mouth to speak, I thought of all I’ve learned from my mother, a woman who, with my dad, pretty successfully raised six children. Once, when my sister’s daughter began asking questions about death, I overheard my mom’s advice for handling the situation: “Let your daughter lead these difficult discussions. Too often, we explain these things to kids at a level too deep for them to understand. We forget that it’s children, not adults, asking these hard questions. And we end up answering them as if they’re adults. You’ll be surprised to find that the simplest answers are all they’re usually seeking at the moment. No more. So start simple and let them lead.”
Start simple. I thought of what my son’s three-year-old mind understood. Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Cops and robbers. Good guys and bad guys.
“Well,” I began carefully, “there were bad men who didn’t like Jesus…”
“…and they hurt him?” my son finished.
“Yes,” I answered. I waited, wondering if I should elaborate but willing myself to follow my child’s lead.
“Oh,” he said easily. “I don’t like those bad men.”
I searched my son’s eyes for tears or anger. Instead, I saw compassion as he stared at the crucifix.
“Mommy,” he asked, “can I kiss his boo-boos and make them better?”
“Of course,” I whispered.
As I watched my child approach the crucifix, leaning to kiss Jesus’ nailed feet and reaching up to kiss his bloodied side, my fear and anxiety were replaced with love and peace, and gratitude for my mother’s shared wisdom.
“Let’s go find Daddy,” my son exclaimed, bolting into the church. I almost stopped him. I was ready now. I could do this. I almost wanted to go into further detail about just how much our Lord suffered for our sins, but my son was already at my husband’s side, choosing a pew for Mass.
As usual, my mom was right. My child asked what seemed like a big question, but all he wanted was a simple answer. The difficult details, I know, will fill in as he grows. As his mind gets bigger, so will the answers. But, for now, he’s satisfied.
And so am I.