These Days of Sorrow and Joy

We enter Holy Week with mixed emotions. As adults, we take into account the historical and religious ramifications of this week of all weeks, and struggle with our experiences:  deep sorrow, the impossible circumstances of the penal system of Christ’s time on earth, identifying with the apostles, the waiting and wondering, and the the joy in response to the hard-to- comprehend Resurrection. How do we offer such demanding and bewildering experiences to children?

As usual, I go back to memories of my own childhood. My mother was the church organist, so I was aware of the upcoming music even before Palm Sunday. I attended church that day and also the Triduum. Was it an arduous experience? Not at all. I experienced it through symbols and my senses. I could smell, see, and hear the story. The water being poured! The candlelight in a darkened church! It was sad, of course, but the symbols and my experience of them through my senses made for a powerful spiritual experience which took the fear out of it. Even Good Friday, the least enjoyable of these services, was less about the suffering Christ for me than that He was gone. It was the only day you couldn’t go to Communion. Having been told that  “you can always talk to Jesus”, not having Eucharist for one day brought home to me the fact that Jesus had died.

Here are some resources to help children this Holy Week:

For younger children:

For older children, I share with you a story I wrote. This true story is about a custom in a Mexican town during the days just before Holy Week. This honors Mary, Jesus’ mother. Special thanks to Joyana Jacoby Dvorak for sharing her experience of this tradition.You can find this story, with fifty-four other tales of compassion and justice, in TO WALK HUMBLY. See

Blessings to you and yours for Easter!



La Virgen de Dolores

This true story is about a custom in a Mexican town during the days just before Holy Week. This honors Mary, Jesus’ mother. Special thanks to Joyana Jacoby Dvorak for sharing her experience of this tradition.

Joy, a young woman from the United States, had lived in Guanajuato long enough to know the marketplace well. On Friday before Holy Week, she noticed there were bundles of purple and white flowers at most stalls. All around her, market-goers cradled bouquets of these flowers as they did their shopping or hurried off to work. These flowers seemed to be everywhere. Joy inhaled the sweet fragrance and smiled into the lined faces of the people selling them. A few petals fluttered down from a stand, and Joy noticed there was a softness under her feet because of many petals that had already fallen.

After the market, she headed to the home of her friend, Clara. Clara welcomed her as usual and her two little girls, Lili and Lupe, were excited to see Joy. They grabbed her hands, pulling her into the house.

“Joy, I don’t think you have ever met my mother, the girls’ abuela,” Clara said, introducing her to a small woman. Abuela seemed intrigued by this tall young American who could speak to her in fluent Spanish.

But they had little time to speak, for little Lili piped up, “You came just in time! We’re making the altar now.”

It was then that Joy noticed two vases filled with purple and white flowers.

“This is for La Virgen de Dolores,” Lupe said.

This Virgin of pan, Joy thought. She looked wonderingly at Clara.

“Next week is the Passion of Our Lord,” Clara said. “His mother suffered so! A mother’s heart breaks when a child dies. So think of La Virgen today, who is so sad because her Son will soon suffer and die.

Joy watched with fascination as Clara created an altar with her mother and daughters. On a table they laid a white cloth, then placed a smaller purple one on top of that. “Purple, for sorrow,” Lupe explained.

The table stood in front of a window where a purple cloth was hung like a curtain. From the curtain rod Abuela hung a painting of the Mother of Jesus, pictured with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Lili and Lupe added the flowers and Clara set many candles on the altar. Then together, they artistically arranged oranges, pineapples, and bananas. Where the white cloth fell in soft folds on the floor, Abuela placed more fruit there.

Green garlands hung from the ceiling. Clara climbed onto a chair to tie more bananas and oranges from the garlands. Joy helped with this task but was soon on the floor with the girls, cutting delicate shapes out of purple tissue paper. They added these to the altar too.

They stood back to admire their handiwork as Clara sent Lupe for some matches. Then Clara suggested that they each light one candle. “Think of a special person when you light your candle, one whom you want to remember in prayer. In your heart, as la Virgen to take extra special care of that person.”

They became so quiet that the striking of the match seemed loud to Joy. Good rituals bring all the senses to attention, and the sound of that match seemed to begin the experience. Abuela stepped forward first, reaching out to light a candle. She knelt before the altar, deep in prayer. Lili hopped a little on one leg, but that did not matter. The scent of the flowers and fruit hung in the air. Clara and Lupe closed their eyes to pray.

Joy was invited to pray next. She lighted a candle and prayed as the tiny flame seemed to send her prayer to la Virgen. She stepped back and stood next to Abuela as the others each approached the altar. They continued to pray in silence.

But the group was not silent for long Soon Lili gave Joy a warm smile and asked, “Can you come back later? Please?”

For the rest of that day, Joy saw more altars to La Virgen de Dolores. In many neighborhoods, she noticed other families creating their altars. What surprised her was that there were also altars in front of most of the stores. Often she was offered refreshing drinks of cool fruit water, agua fresca, with various flavors of strawberry, jamica or lemon.

She returned to Clara’s house as promised. Again grabbing Joy’s hands, the little girls led her to a neighbor’s house. Lili knocked on the door and when their neighbor opened it, the little girl asked, “Ya lloro la Virgen?”

Joy silently translated the words: has the Virgin cried yet?

The neighbor nodded and left the door, returning with three paletas, homemade flavored ice. The taste was similar to the delicious drinks Joy had enjoyed earlier in the day.

“These are the Virgen’s tears,” Lupe said, indicating her paleta.

“And the drinks, the agua fresca—are they her tears too?” Joy asked.

Lili nodded, enjoying her treat. But Lupe said, “Come on! Let’s go to the next house!”

Walking through the neighborhood Joy saw more altars and drank more “tears.” There was a festive atmosphere all around. And yet, wasn’t this about sadness, suffering and pain?

She looked around, thinking how she loved the way the people here stayed so close to their faith. It was almost time for Easter, where death and resurrection to new life are so closely observed. This celebration, with its theme of tears but joyful celebration, was a taste of the week to come.