So many Christmas plays and pageants add unnecessary details to the simple and beautifully moving accounts of the birth of our Savior!
The Christmas play should be offered before the Entrance Song at Mass. Then, simply present the Gospels as they relate the events: begin with the Annunciation, allowing Mary, the angel Gabriel, and a narrator to recite the words from Scripture. Between this moment and the next, the children can sing a Marian hymn, such as “Sing of Mary” or “Hail Mary, Gentle Woman.” Next present the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, again using the sacred texts. A sung version of Mary’s Magnificat would be a fitting interlude before the next Scripture enactment: that of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem and the birth of our Lord. So many songs would be perfect here: “Silent Night” or “Away in a Manger” are only two examples. Next, present the Visitation of the Shepherds. When the angel Gabriel makes his announcement to the shepherds, the children can sing “Glory to God in the Highest” – the setting the church will use for the Gloria during Mass would be perfect. When this scripture text is finished, “The First Noel” or “Angels We Have Heard on High” would be a fitting song interlude. Finally allow the children to act out the Adoration of the Magi, again keeping very religiously to the Scripture text from the Gospel of Matthew. Cap off this episode with “We Three Kings.” Then, as the children return to their pews, the assembly could begin the Entrance Song: “Joy to the World” could be a lovely bridge between the Christmas play and the celebration of the Eucharist.
Of course, it may be advisable to keep the homily essential and succinct during this particular Mass. Perhaps the priest or deacon could point out simply that we, like Mary, can treasure these events and ponder them in our hearts. We, like that shepherds can approach the Christ child to see this thing that God makes known to us; we can also tell others about the marvels we have seen. And like the Magi, we can offer all our best gifts, the gifts of our hearts and of our homage, to our Infant King. Encourage the children to see the link between the way in which Mary and Joseph accepted the Baby Jesus into their lives and what happens when we receive the Eucharist; let them know that we are no different than the shepherds and Magi when we approach Christ on the altar.
In Advent you had the opportunity to help the children to cultivate silence and joy in the liturgy. During Christmas, the children brought the gift of themselves and of their worship to the altar, in imitation of the shepherds and Magi. During this short period of Ordinary Time during winter, consider helping the children to develop wonder and reverence for the Eucharist.
In each classroom, write the following vocabulary on the blackboard: sanctuary lamp, tabernacle, and ciborium. Write these words even for the younger children who can’t yet read. Explain that every church in the whole world (name some countries and encourage the children to name some, too), contains these very holy objects. In every church they will ever enter, they will see a red lamp burning. The flame is never extinguished. The light of the sanctuary lamp is there to announce that Jesus is present. Really let that sink in: God is truly present with us in the church! Then explain that the sanctuary lamp is usually located near the tabernacle, and explain that the tabernacle is a very holy space, like a treasure chest, usually made of precious metal or stone and lined in silk. What is inside the tabernacle is so precious that it is kept locked with a key. And the tabernacle contains…the ciborium. As each term is defined, let the suspense build. Explain that the ciborium is a very precious vessel with a lid. It is usually made of silver or gold. When the lid is lifted off, we can see inside. The consecrated hosts are kept inside the ciborium. Jesus is kept there, inside this beautiful and precious container, kept inside the tabernacle. Jesus Christ is truly present there! Then let the children know that when they visit the church, they will see these things.
Not long after this catechesis, bring the children on a field trip to the church. Gather the group of children in the narthex and ask them if they know who lives here, in the church. Explore with them what it means to say that God lives in the church, that Jesus is present in the church. How is Jesus present in a most particular and special way in the church building? They will remember the earlier discussion with great joy. Explain that when they enter the church, they should look for the sanctuary lamp.
Then ask the children who Jesus is. Recall some of the names of Christ: the Prince of Peace, Lord of the Universe, Son of God, Light of the World, King of Kings. He is so great! Then ask the children to observe silence as they enter the church. If possible, ring the small bell that was used during Advent to teach silence.
Once the children are inside the church, ask them in a whisper if they see the sanctuary lamp. Then ask them if it is burning. Show them where the tabernacle is. With great joy and solemnity, announce (still whispering) that Jesus is present. Explain to the children that there is a prayer we can make with our bodies when we know that Jesus is present. Very slowly and carefully, model going down on one knee with head bowed. Ask the children if anyone would like to try this prayer. Ask the children what they think this prayer could mean. Jesus is so great and we are so small. Invite all the children to genuflect together. Tell them that this prayer is called “genuflection.” If the children seem coordinated enough, show them how to make the Sign of the Cross while genuflecting. Let them know that whenever they enter a church, anywhere in the world, they can do this prayer to show that they know that Jesus is present, that he is so great, the greatest of all kings, and that we know that we are small when we are in front of him.
During Holy Week, create special invitations, one for each child, inviting them to celebrate the most solemn, most holy event of their lives. The invitation should say that this celebration will last three days, and it will change their lives and the world forever so that nothing will ever be the same again.
Meanwhile, in preparation for Mass, write the words: “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory” on the blackboard. Underneath the words, draw a chalice and a paten (or tape up a picture of these articles). Find three pictures (preferably reproductions from high art): one of the Crucifixion, one of the Resurrection, and one of the Return of Christ (this third image could be of the Risen Christ superimposed over an image of the earth) and tape them in a row beneath the illustration of the chalice and paten.
First, light a candle and then indicate the picture of the Crucifixion and ask the children what we mean when we say that “Christ died.” If they are able to find Bible passages on their own, let them search in the Bibles for the verse that tells us that Jesus died. The first child who finds the verse may read it aloud for the group. If they are too young for this exercise, find the verse and read it aloud for the children. Ask them what it was like for Jesus to die and what it means that he died for us. What does it mean that he has “destroyed our death”?
Then have the children search for a passage that describes the Resurrection (or read it to them). What does it mean? Was anyone expecting this to happen? What does it mean for us that Jesus rose from the dead? How does his rising “restore our life”?
Next, ask the children if they know what it means to ask Christ to “come in glory.” Have them turn to Revelation 21:1-4 and read the passage with great care. Ask the children what the world will be like when Christ returns. How will it be “new” and glorious?
Explain that the prayer written on the blackboard is called “The Mystery of Faith.” During the most intense and precious moment in the Mass, we proclaim this great mystery – Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory – right after the priest repeats the words of Jesus from the Last Supper. The apostles knew Jesus, they touched him and walked with him and listened to him. They lived through the dark days of Christ’s suffering and death and they met with Jesus after he rose from the dead. But what about us? Have we missed out on these events? What is our experience of Jesus like? How do we draw near him? How do we also live these amazing events that mean everything to us? What do we receive when we eat the Body and Blood of Jesus? His whole life, the vast eternity of it, with all its power, is contained in the host that we receive. Everything that has ever happened to him and all that will ever happen is in the chalice when we drink his blood. Singing the prayer together is a fine way to end this meditation.
Have the children copy the words of this prayer onto unlined index cards and allow them to decorate the words as they wish. Laminate and attach a white ribbon to each card, if possible. Encourage the children to bring their prayer cards to Mass with them.
During the Easter season, provide a holy water font near the door to each classroom and encourage the children to use it as they enter and exit the classroom. Spread the classroom prayer table with a clean white cloth, and keep a small glass bowl of holy water there. Take time to read, together with the class, the Prayer of Invocation over the Waters of Baptism and to linger over the rich sacred history of water and its role in our salvation. Also, set aside a moment in each school day to light a candle and read one of the Resurrection narratives from the Bible. After these readings, create a silence, together with the students. Conclude by singing, “Alleluia.” Also, beginning and ending the school day singing, “Alleluia” would be an appropriate way to mark this holy season. Let the children know that God treasures each and every Alleluia we offer him.
There are three key prayer gestures during the celebration of the Eucharist. Orienting the children to these moments will help them enter more deeply into a theological understanding of the Mass. The first gesture is called the Epiclesis, the second is the gesture of offering, and the third is the exchange of peace.
Begin by explaining to the class that there are many ways to pray. Ask them if they can think of any. Help them to recall the silences they have offered, the spoken prayers they know, their hymn singing. Remind them that we also pray with our bodies. Many of the children will be able to recall the Sign of the Cross and genuflection.
Then explain that when the priest lowers his hands over the bread and wine, he asks the Father to change them, through the power of the Holy Spirit, into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This prayer, called the Epiclesis, is so important that it is made with the priest’s whole body. Then, very solemnly, model this prayer gesture for the children: stand before the class, begin with both hands held out, palms facing down, at about chest height. Then slowly lower them. Ask the children what they think this prayer could mean. Help them notice that the priest’s hands begin high and come down. Who is “on high”? Who is here below? Is he perhaps asking God to give us a gift? What is the best gift, the gift that we most desire? Who is the only One who can give such a gift? What do we receive in the Eucharist?
Next, explain that there is another prayer gesture the priest makes later in the Mass. He takes the consecrated host and the chalice in his hands and lifts them. Model the gesture of offering for the children. Begin with hands extended, palms facing up this time, and slowly raise them from chest height to above the head. Then ask the children what they think this gesture could mean. First we ask God for a gift; then when we receive the gift, what do we do? What are we offering to God in this moment of the Mass? Recite the prayer that the priest says at this moment: “Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor are yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever.” We offer our very selves, all glory and honor, along with Christ “in the unity of the Holy Spirit” back to God, our Father in heaven.
Model the gesture of Epiclesis again and ask the children whether this prayer is “horizontal” or “vertical.” Do the same with the gesture of Offering. Explain that the third prayer gesture is made by the people, and it is horizontal. Ask for a volunteer, a student who frequently attends Mass, from the class. Stand sideways to the class, facing the volunteer, extend the right hand and say, “Peace be with you.” The volunteer will shake hands and say, “And also with you.” Allow the volunteer to sit down. Ask the class what this prayer gesture could mean. What connects us to one another? What is the source of our peace? Then, with the right hand, trace a vertical line in the air – first palm down from high to low, then from low to high – then cut across this vertical line with a horizontal gesture from left to right and right to left, completing the shape of a large cross in the air. Ask the children if they can see what shape these gestures make when they are put together.
Ask the children to look for these prayer gestures when they attend Mass and to think of God’s gift of himself, our response, and the unity between and among ourselves that this exchange makes possible.
Light a candle and read John 14:27. Ask the children if these words are familiar. Encourage them to listen for them during the celebration of the Eucharist. Then read John 20:19. Allow the silence to extend as long as the children can hold it. Then remind them that this word, Peace, his Peace, was the first word he spoke to them. Even after they had abandoned and denied them, he didn’t reprimand them. He told them, “Peace.” Don’t forget to sing, “Alleluia”!
During this liturgical season, one school year ends and another begins. Both occasions offer a rich opportunity to think with the children about the mystery of time and what happens to time during the celebration of the Eucharist.
We, who live in time, find it hard to imagine timelessness, eternity. And yet, we will never appreciate the Eucharist if we don’t recognize that time ends when Mass begins and continues to be suspended until the priest or deacon speaks the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Even if our watches continue to tick, we have entered the realm of God, where all events coincide and all peoples of all times are united through the power of the Holy Spirit.
During the Eucharistic prayer, there is a moment called The Epiclesis Over the People. There are four different versions of this prayer:
1) Then, as we receive from this altar
the sacred body and blood of your Son,
let us be filled with every grace and blessing. (Eucharistic prayer I)
2) May all of us who share in the body and blood
of Christ be brought together in unity
by the Holy Spirit. (Eucharistic prayer II)
3) Grant that we, who are nourished by his body
And blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit
And become one body, one spirit in Christ.
(Eucharistic prayer III)
4) …and by your Holy Spirit, gather all who share
this one bread and one cup into the one body
of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise.
(Eucharistic prayer IV)
This prayer, in its various forms, teaches us the means through which the Eucharist transcends time and space: unity. Through the Eucharist, we achieve unity of mind and heart, not only with those we see surrounding us in church, but with every person – living, dead, and yet to be born – including the saints and the three persons of the Holy Trinity. It is not through our effort that we become one with the vast multitude of communicants throughout history; only through the power of the Holy Spirit, whose love binds us on the level of our flesh and blood and transforms us into one Person – Christ himself – can we become this living, breathing miracle.
Find out which Eucharistic prayer will be used at the next Mass you will attend together, and copy the words onto the class blackboard. Provide the materials and help needed so that the students may make prayer cards or bookmarks. Invite them to compose their own prayers for peace and unity in the world and in their hearts. Ask them to consider what blocks them from living out the unity they become in the Eucharist. Ask them how they might repair these blockages and ruptures in their daily lives. Provide them with an opportunity to draw or paint this amazing, divine unity. Throughout the school year, at every opportunity, teach the children to see all of history – past, present, and future – drawn into this cosmic unity. Let them know that wherever they may go, they remain united with one another so long as they remain united in the Eucharist. A beautiful Scripture passage on the theme of unity is the parable of the True Vine found at the beginning of John 15. Most important, pray privately or with friends and family to live the unity we long to see in all the world.
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