Reality is an essential part of the Easter message

17th March 2006 at 00:00
In our increasingly secular society, it's perhaps surprising that the traditional Nativity continues to exert such a hold over our primary schools. After all, many parents only see the inside of a church when they're trying to secure the priest's signature on the school application form. But Easter is a different kettle of fish (loaves too, if you want to keep it biblical). Whereas the Christmas story exerts a powerful pull on even the most cynical minds, what with the supersaturated "aah" factor of a baby, a succession of cute animals, and an upbeat, happy ending, Easter just doesn't play, as Hollywood would put it.

Instead of a heady combination of unconfined joy depicted by small children wearing halos and tinsel, Easter gives us the bits we'd rather forget about. There's joy, right at the end, but on an intellectual level removed by several quantum leaps from the simplistic happiness of Christmas, and preceded by betrayal, pain and death in spades.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many schools play down the whole thing. But the removal of large chunks of the Easter story, on the grounds that it will upset delicate young minds, makes Jesus's life somewhat difficult to comprehend, condensed as it now is into something that resembles a Solomon Grundy parody: Jesus is born at Christmas, has a spot of bother a few months later, and then gets ready to be born all over again. But is this what we want?

As a music teacher responsible for choosing the hymns sung by the 120 four to seven-year-olds at my school, I am increasingly torn about songs that press all the right buttons in national curriculum terms but add not a smidgen of knowledge to this essential part of the story of Jesus.

When I was growing up, my C of E primary school assemblies left none of the pupils, however tiny, in any doubt as to what Jesus was going through:

"Ride on, ride on in majesty, In lowly pomp ride on to die"; "When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of Glory died"; "We may not know, we cannot tell, What pains he had to bear"; "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" There was blood, there were tears and there was a fair amount of guilt, too, but we took none of it personally. Wrapped up in stirring tunes, we took the words - and their meaning - in our stride.

Today, many schools prefer the wonders of Mother Nature as a more suitable way of communicating the idea of life after death. Instead of focusing on the crown of thorns and that green hill far away, we encourage our children to marvel at the blooming of the flowers, the nesting of the birds, the growing warmth of the sun...

Understandable though this policy is, I wonder if we are doing our children any favours. Look at many hymn books, even the more modern ones, and you'll see that some of our greatest songs of worship are linked to chapters from the Old Testament, something that, with the exception of the top 10 stories, such as Noah and Joseph's Coat of Many Colours, is fast exiting our primary school classrooms. I'm not suggesting that we go back to a time when original sin was a popular concept, merely that we reintroduce some of the more traditional Easter songs so that children, whether from a Christian background or not, at least have some sort of context for what is still, after all, the source of much of the moral code we try to instil in them.

There are limits, of course. Just before Christmas, as I talked through the words to "O, come all ye faithful", which are, admittedly, hard for the average six-year-old to take on board, we came to the line, "Lo, he abhors not the Virgin's womb". We all stared at it for some minutes before I said, weakly: "I suggest you ask your mummies about this one." And there ended the lesson.

Charlotte Phillips teaches music at Newland House prep school in Twickenham, Middlesex

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