During Lent, our parish had a large cross in the Narthex. I'm not sure it was life sized but, if it wasn't, it was pretty close. The cross was slightly propped up so it was not flat on the ground. Under it was a cloth- mostly purple but also red on Palm Sunday. Around it, placed on pillars of different sizes, were various items- a crown of thorns, a large old fashioned sponge in a bowl, nails as big as my hand, giant die, cloth "garments," a white cloth with a picture of Jesus' face on it. Tied loosely to the cross was a spear.
It was a neat and eye catching display. I really liked it... until I had to hang out in the Narthex with my toddler and say things like, "The cross is NOT a balance beam! You make NOT play with the crown of thorns! Put DOWN the spear!" Even with my (then!) seven year old, I had to remind him to look and not touch.
One day, I pulled Joseph aside and held him in my arms... in part to cuddle him, but also to keep him from running around like a maniac before we were all let into the church for the final part of his First Communion Retreat. I leaned over and whispered in his ear, "Do you know why the cross is there?"
"Yeah, because it's Lent."
"But what does the crown mean? Why is their a spear?" He answered my questions correctly and then asked about the sponge. I reminded him that Jesus was thirsty on the cross and they gave him something to drink. Carefully, I picked up one of the nails and showed him how big the nails were. His eyes grew wide. To hear about it is one thing, to hold nails the actual size of the nails that were driven into Jesus' hands, and see them compared to your own hands, is another.
Like many children today, my kids see pictures of Jesus' death and suffering in colored books. They see the corpus on the cross surrounded by bunnies, chickies and lambs. Maybe Mary is there, along with a couple Disciples, but it's always, "Yay! Jesus died to save us from our sins! Now He's risen so let's eat chocolate!" In other words, it's a cleaned up happy version of what happened.
The real death of Jesus wasn't like that. It wasn't neat, happy or clean. It was horrible suffering inflicted upon a man who was fully divine and human and felt the physical pain every bit as much as you and I would. Maybe even more so, considering He took upon all our suffering for the cross.
I won't show my children movies like "The Passion" now because it is too violent for them. Yet, I don't want to completely shield them from the true, horrible, gritty suffering He went through. They need to know that this great act of love was hard. Love isn't always easy, clean and full of chocolate; in fact, the most worthwhile parts of love can be the hardest, dirtiest and most painful. Jesus' death was all of these- hard, painful but He did it because He felt it was so worth it.
Children (in fact, many adults) learn through doing, seeing and feeling, not just hearing. Imagine science class without experiments or simply hearing about play and never reading or seeing one. Who real would it be to you? And, yes, we do need to believe in Christ's suffering, death and resurrection on faith but to be able to hand a child a nail and say, "something as big and as thick as this went through Jesus' hands" is powerful. You can literally see the little cogs in their heads turning. They get it. They know.
At the end of Lent, I went up to the priest and thanked him for putting the cross and all the items on display. I told him that my kids were really learning about the Passion from a simple display in the Narthex. He looked surprised, then smiled.
Joseph makes his First Communion in a few days. I hope when he receives the Body of Christ for the first time, he thinks back to that cross and remembers the great gift that His Body is, born out of love for all of us.