Brandon Helder on The Gift of the Cross Holy Week Devotional for Children
Brandon Helder's elementary students and his own children responded to tactile Jesse Tree devotionals during Advent, but he couldn't find similar Holy Week resources. To help children and families anticipate Easter, Helder wrote The Gift of the Cross: Celebrating Christ Through Holy Week and designed Resurrection Blocks.
Brandon Helder is an educator and author. He teaches third grade at Grand Rapids Christian Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Brandon Helder's books help children and families deepen relationships with God and each other. In this edited conversation, Helder explains why he wrote The Gift of the Cross: Celebrating Christ Through Holy Week and designed companion sets of Resurrection Blocks.
Why did you write The Gift of the Cross, and for whom did you write it?
For years I’ve used a Jesse Tree devotional with my third-grade students and with my three daughters at home. I love the routine, the symbolism, and the way that it has centered our time leading up to Christmas. I’ve always wanted something like this for Easter.
After much searching, I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I started writing. Two years later, I am excited to share my devotional The Gift of the Cross: Celebrating Christ Through Holy Week. This devotional was written and designed with my own children and students in mind. The Gift of the Cross, paired with a set of Resurrection Blocks, is a great fit for elementary students. The devotional's content and format also work well independently all the way through middle school.
The line under each day's devotional title lists several passages, but each day uses only one Bible reading. Why?
A lot of thought and energy went into deciding which Bible passages would be included in The Gift of the Cross. I ultimately chose the text that I believed shared the story in the most concise, kid-friendly language. I included the additional verse references to open the door to further exploration of each story. Listing them all reminds children and adults alike that the gospel is a collection of stories from unique perspectives—all pointing to the same truth and salvation found in Jesus Christ.
Why does each devotional repeat certain elements, such as Preparing, Responding to Scripture, and Remembering?
Consistency is important, especially for children. The repeated liturgical elements allow children to participate in familiar and safe ways. Creating a daily rhythm helps limit distractions and allows readers and participants to focus on the heart of each Bible story.
Why did you choose to include liturgical elements in each daily devotional?
I intentionally included brief liturgical elements in each daily devotion. For example, I begin each day with the call “The Lord be with you” and the response "And also with you.” Each daily devotional ends with “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” For children who are familiar with these refrains, repeating them at home or school solidifies and reinforces the larger kingdom message they experience in their church communities.
How do students from non-liturgical churches react to the repeated elements?
For children who are less familiar with liturgical elements, this is a simple introduction to timeless truths and sacred traditions. The first Palm Sunday devotional intentionally introduces each phrase, so participants learn them before they need to use them. Each refrain is also printed on the back of the book for those who would rather read than memorize.
About how long does each session last?
At home with our daughters and in my classroom, each daily devotion takes approximately ten to fifteen minutes, but session length can vary. I imagine some teachers including a time of singing and worship or even acting out these stories using readers theater. Others might choose to summarize a story or simply use the reflection questions to meet their group's unique needs.
How might the devotionals be used differently in home or school settings?
While writing this book, I kept in mind that parents and teachers are the experts on what will work best for their home or classroom. I invite readers to adapt The Gift of the Cross to fit the needs of their children or students. Using a storybook Bible may be a better fit for younger children. Older participants can use the multiple biblical references to compare how each gospel uniquely shares Holy Week stories. I included a reading pacing guide parents and teachers to read at home, within a school schedule, or even as a weekly devotional throughout Lent. Whether they use it during Holy Week or throughout Lent, all can reflect on the truth of God’s Word, wonder at his love, and remember and celebrate the gift of the cross.
How can children help lead segments of The Gift of the Cross?
There are many ways to invite children to participate throughout this devotional:
- Every child is invited to participate in each day's liturgical call and response portions.
- Children can help with physical elements by unwrapping each day’s block, stacking it with the others, or lighting the candle.
- Children are encouraged to discuss the daily reflection questions with each other. For younger children, it can help to preview these questions before or while reading the biblical text.
- Where possible, invite children to read along from their own Bible. Older children could take turns as the leader for each daily devotional or by reading the prayer.
- Every devotional ends with an opportunity to respond in action later in the day, such as noticing how all creation praises God or finding ways to serve others.
What are the Resurrection Blocks?
I designed a companion set of wooden blocks called Resurrection Blocks to use along with The Gift of the Cross. A new block is revealed daily and stacked on top of the others, ultimately constructing a wooden cross. Worship Woodworks, the U.S. company that hand-crafts the Resurrection Blocks, also makes the figures used in the Young Children in Worship and Following Jesus church curriculums.
The Resurrection Blocks are available in two versions: a laser-engraved hardwood set and a brightly-colored vinyl sticker set. While The Gift of the Cross devotional can be enjoyed without using the Resurrection Blocks, the physical model enhances the experience by allowing for greater participation and anticipation as readers draw closer to Easter. The block sets, constructed to be used year after year, offer children a tactile experience and a memorable visual to carry with them beyond Easter.
What tactile elements might parents or teachers use if they don't buy the Resurrection Blocks?
Each daily devotional includes a symbol for that day’s Bible story. These images could be enlarged and added to a bulletin board or poster each day. Crafters could use air-dry clay to create their own 3-D versions of each symbol. If the cost of the devotional or Resurrection Blocks proves to be a financial hindrance for families or classrooms, I invite and encourage them to contact me. I’ll do all I can to help.
See a sample devotional from The Gift of the Cross: Celebrating Christ Through Holy Week. Buy the book on Amazon or from Brandon Helder's website. Choose between two Resurrection Block sets. Watch Helder's brief video "Description of the Resurrection Blocks" (1:31) and his other brief explainer videos.