Faith and danger go hand-in-hand.
Recently, I made a set of materials for a story included in Godly Play’s curriculum. The story is called The Mystery of Christmas. In a series of stories for Advent, Godly Play acquaints children with the prophets (week one), Mary and Joseph (week two), the shepherds (week three) and the Magi (week four). With those pieces as a basis, Godly Play presents a story on Christmas Sunday that rounds out the narrative. The Mystery of Christmas presents aspects of the story that were left out in Advent—and at least one part of the story portrays the “shadow side” of Christmas: the Massacre of the Innocents.
Some days ago, a concerned friend asked me about the inclusion of this part in the story. She was worried it might be too intense for children. I thought I’d share my response below since I believe you might find it interesting and helpful to you, whether you are involved in children’s ministry or not.
I hope this helps.
Thank you for asking me about this.
The story on Sunday was an adaptation of a book called The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L'Engle. It is a picture book that uses paintings by Giotto to tell the story of Christ. The author of Godly Play adapted the book for use in a Godly Play circle. The Godly Play story is called The Mystery of Christmas and it features portions of the Christmas story that are often left out in our normal retelling of Christ's advent. For example, The Mystery of Christmas story includes the part where the angel appears to Mary, announcing that she will conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit. This part of the story was not included in our Advent lessons, but it is something that is good for the children to know.
One aim of the story is to introduce children to some classic phrases used throughout church history. (The "liturgical action" genre of Godly Play--of which The Mystery of Christmas is a part--aims to acquaint children with "the language and practices" of our faith).
So, on the first plaque, the phrase featured is The Annunciation. The second plaque features The Magnificat, where Mary visits Elizabeth. The third plaque introduces children to the expression "The Nativity". The fourth plaque tells about The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, introducing the children to Simeon and Anna. The fifth plaque is The Adoration of the Magi. The sixth is The Massacre of the Innocents and the seventh is The Flight into Egypt.
Because the intent of The Mystery of Christmas is to round out the narrative of an already-familiar story, the author of Godly Play included the troubling scene in the telling. So, along with the choice to include the scene, the author wanted to make sure it was done with some propriety. I will mention more on Godly Play's strategies for that later in this email.
One other goal for this story involves something Godly Play addresses throughout the corpus of the curriculum: the author hopes children will engage issues of suffering, pain and death--since he found that children do, in fact, think about these things at very young ages. The author of Godly Play observed that most children's ministry curricula include stories that have death and suffering as core aspects but these curricula do not necessarily present the stories in ways that would encourage the children to think meaningfully about death.
The problem is, much of our Christian story depends on these themes. The stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, The Passover, David and Goliath, the crucifixion—and more—rely on such themes. Of course, all children think about death, pain and suffering--but (church-going or not) many children are not nurtured to think respectfully about it because of the way popular media often presents death and violence.
Because of that, whenever the author of Godly Play includes aspects that portray the "shadow" side of our faith the intent is not to avoid it but rather to engage it without glorifying it. That is why the color purple is used frequently in Godly Play stories. It helps children begin to engage with this shadow side. Other aspects in the Godly Play method come into play here as well. For example, when a desert story includes Sarah's death, there is a moment of silence and a gesture of burial. Of course, the crucifixion is another core part of our story. Troubling, indeed.
In last Sunday's story, telling the part about the death of the babies could not be avoided because it explains how the Holy Family got to Egypt. Hopefully, this part of the story appropriately portrays a sense of danger--in the light of which God’s grace is magnified even more. The danger of sending his Son into our world in the form of a vulnerable baby is what makes this story so amazing. (The desert stories we tell also help children engage with the dangerous side of our faith. "The desert is a dangerous place," we repeat at the beginning of each story. "You could lose your way there and even die there." We include this in our telling of the stories because faith has the potential to grow stronger in the context of danger. Paradoxically, the aim of a Godly Play circle is to provide a safe space where children can reflect on the value of danger.)
So there are a few strategies used in this story to help the children reflect meaningfully on the mystery of pain in the midst of Christ's advent. One strategy is through the usual storytelling method: a slower, quieter, reverent tone.
The second strategy is, of course, the wondering time and the response time in which the children can work out what they think and feel about aspects of the story. The idea is that the leaders observe how the children are responding to the more troublesome aspects of the story and then spiritually nurture them through those issues.
The story's artwork itself represents a third strategy: the various scenes are presented by means of classical art--Giotto's paintings. I can assure you the paintings are not gory nor do they glorify the violence. By using classical art to reflect on this narrative, the children are also prepared to engage with artistic representations they would likely see in the course of their regular, "real world" experiences (in museums, for example). This format is quite distinct from (for example) the David C. Cook approach in which Bible characters often are portrayed in comic book fashion. I've seen children shout, "Cool!" when looking at some of Cook's representations of Old Testament battle scenes. It is simply deplorable that some Christian publishers aim to elicit that kind of response from children to scenes we should find repulsive. That said, the Godly Play approach tries to approach the harder parts of the faith with reverence and due respect.
There is one final strategy that is used in this particular story: the teacher is instructed to talk about that part of the story while holding the plaque in such a way that the picture is hidden for most of the narrative. Only at the very last portion of part 6 does the teacher show the picture to the children and then the story moves on to the Flight into Egypt so as not to shock the children too much.
That said: naturally, some children will remember plaque 6 more than the others because of what it portrays. I do hope, however, that it is not something that is giving the children nightmares or troubling them overmuch. Certainly, this is an instance where children's ministry relies on the partnership of parents to nurture the children through questions they may have.
I will ask the other parents if they had any reactions from their children on this, however. We surely do not want to make our children anxious. For my part, I was pleased to see the 4th through 6th grade class engage with that part of the story respectfully. The children did not make light of it (as often older elementary children do) but nor did they dwell on it.
Please don't hesitate to call me if you have any more concerns. I would be happy to hear what's on your heart, friend.
Grateful for you,
Write Troy to inquire how we may be able to help you.