Great & Holy Friday Youth Retreat

On Great and Holy Friday, our parish offers a day full of beautiful services, and we encourage families to attend all of them. We begin with the Royal Hours in the morning, and then we gather to decorate Christ’s tomb and to place flowers around the church. Christ’s Descent from the Cross (in which Father will invite the kids up to help him wrap our Lord’s body) will happen at 3:00, and the beautiful Lamentations service (in which our girls, dressed all in white, will be Christ’s myhhrbearers, scattering rose petals on the tomb) begins at 7:00. The day is long, and we have many opportunities to spend quality time with the kids. In recent years, we have begun to offer a formal Great and Holy Friday Youth Retreat, in which we focus on an aspect of the Crucifixion or Resurrection (or both!). It’s a wonderful time to catch them between beautiful, dramatic services and to focus their attention in a profitable way.

The retreats don’t have to be complicated. In fact, the best ones are really just conversations.

In past years, we’ve focused on the details of the crucifixion, letting the children taste vinegar as Christ did, and talking with them about what it means when the spear in Christ’s side released both blood and water. (It meant that He was, indeed, dead, as the two fluids had separated, and when we celebrate Holy Communion, we use both wine (blood) and hot water, remembering this detail.) Another year, our parishioner, Mary Long, developed a beautiful lesson for us, in which she focused on the story St. Demas, the thief on the cross beside our Lord. Tradition holds that St. Demas had encountered Jesus once before, when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt in His infancy. It’s a fascinating story that culminates in Christ’s great mercy and love, even for a sinner so late to repent.  It gives even the greatest sinners among us hope, as we cry out, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom!”

As we planned for this year, I have been thinking about these lines from St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily:

“[Hades] took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.”

I am so struck by the oppositions. What Hades could see was all superficial and false: Hades thought it received a lifeless, earthly body only to find that this was, in fact, our immortal and all-powerful God — not death at all, but Life itself. Hades considers only what can be seen, but found itself wrestling with the unseen.

Hades tried to contain the uncontainable, and failed.

Our retreats include children of all ages — from preschoolers to high schoolers — so I began by trying to think of a memorable image that would convey this idea. I considered overfilling a balloon until it popped, trying to think of a bounded space that could burst open when we tried to pump boundlessness into it… Perhaps you’ll do better than I did, but I didn’t produce a good demonstration.

Instead, my parish priest, Fr. Vasileios Flegas, and I came up with a more interactive demonstration: a game.

We’ll create a bounded area (“Hades”) by taping off a part of our lawn. Before the game begins, we’ll find a teen to play the devil, and another to play Jesus. When the time comes, we’ll gather all the kids for an unusual game of tag. The devil and his minions will chase the kids around, and when they tag someone, they’ll be dragged off to Hades. The devil will capture all of them, one by one, until finally only Jesus is left. When all of the kids are gathered in Hades, the devil and his minions will capture Jesus, and he’ll announce to the crowd that God was fool enough to become man, and now as a dead man, God’s own Son will be trapped in Hades forever. As the devil exults over his supposed victory, our Jesus will begin to do His work. He’ll announce that He is uncontainable and immortal, and then He’ll trample death by death, tearing down the taped boundaries and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Once the kids have all been freed by their Savior, we’ll split them into age-appropriate groups and head off for conversation.

We’ll unpack the game they just played, asking questions and working out just how it was the Christ harrowed Hades.

With the youngest children, we’ll consider the idea that God is HUGE. He is uncontainable and therefore Hades cannot contain Him; He is Life, so of course death cannot overcome Him. We’ll explore the idea that Christ ‘tricked the trickster’ when He entered Hades as if He were a mere man, subject to death, when in fact He was our immortal God.

We’ll discuss the idea that Hades was in darkness, closed off from God, but that Christ Himself entered into it, bringing His uncreated Light into the darkness. Light always conquers darkness.

We’ll also explore who exactly would have been in Hades. They know many Old Testament stories, and should be able to call out the names of many Bible Heroes who passed into Hades before Christ’s birth. From Abraham to Moses, David and Solomon to Isaiah and Daniel and even John the Forerunner, many beloved figures awaited Christ in Hades. Finally, we’ll point out that we ourselves are personally rescued from Hades, as we’ll never have to go there, but will instead be free to be with our God after this earthly life has passed on.

We’ll conclude with the youngest kids by reflecting on how the crucifixion was necessary so that Christ could enter Hades; He entered by dying, so that He might trample down death by death. When the kids go to the Descent from the Cross service, they’ll have in mind the purpose of Christ’s suffering; even as they wrap Him for burial, they’ll recall that His death is necessary to bring life to all.

In the older groups, we’ll spend some time looking at the ways in which the ‘world’ sees one thing, while those with eyes of faith (eyes of the Kingdom) see another. We’ll discuss the Fifteenth Antiphon of the Matins (Plagal of the Second Tone):

“Today is hung upon the Tree, He Who did hang the land in the midst of the waters. A Crown of thorns crowns Him Who is King of Angels. He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery Who wrapped the Heavens with clouds. He received buffetings Who freed Adam in Jordan. He was transfixed with nails Who is the Bridegroom of the Church. He was pierced with a spear Who is the Son of the Virgin. We worship Thy Passion, O Christ. Show also unto us thy glorious Resurrection.”

We’ll note the oppositions and contrasts:

-Christ hung (suspended) the world upon the waters at creation, and is now hung on a tree.
-Christ is the king of all the angels, and yet He is ‘crowned’ with the mocking crown of thorns.
-He is wrapped in purple to mock His identity as the King of Kings, though it was He who wrapped the heavens with clouds. He is the Creator, and yet His own creatures mock Him.
-He offers us new life in baptism, releasing us from the curse of death we found with Adam and Eve, and yet He is abused by those He came to save.
-The original sign they posted read “King of Jews” but now we write His true title:  “King of Glory”

The world and the Kingdom are at odds; the world embraces what is seen, where the Kingdom knows the truth of the unseen. The world offers death and misery, while the Kingdom transforms death into life and reveals God’s glory.

With the oldest kids, we’ll get into the idea that while Christ defeated death, we still contend with suffering and bodily death here in the world. There is plenty of suffering here. What does it mean to pick up one’s cross and follow Christ? What kinds of crosses do we bear? Why does Orthodoxy embrace suffering?

We’ll consider that the saving work of Jesus Christ could only be accomplished through His suffering and death. If we think about it, we may find that our suffering is also necessary for our salvation. When we are happy and successful, we are pretty sure that we can handle anything that comes our way; indeed, one definition of Pride is the ignorance of self. We begin to think that we are gods, that we are in control and wielding our power brilliantly. It often takes real suffering to humble us so that we can see the truth: we are weak and limited, and in need of a savior. We need the heavenly Physician of our souls and bodies to heal our infirmities. It is only when we lift up our broken hearts to the Lord that He can put them back together, and bring us to life.

Then we’ll send the kids off to the Holy Friday services, to Holy Saturday and to Pascha itself, hoping that their thoughts rest on these ideas and bear good fruit, as they receive our resurrected Lord on this greatest of feasts.

If you’re decorating a tomb or sitting quietly beside your kids on this Great and Holy Friday, perhaps you can have these conversations too. You never know what kind of fruit you’ll see.

Kalo Pascha!

About Elissa Bjeletich Davis

Elissa Bjeletich is the mother of five daughters, and serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Austin, Texas. Find more information on her website:

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