Define “Holy” to a three year old child

This morning my wife asked “I have a friend on Facebook who is wondering how does one define the word ‘holy’ to a three year old. Do you have any thoughts?” The first thought was “need more coffee,” but that was all internal as well as the next several minutes of silence. My wheels began to spin thinking about the children at the monthly chapel service for our congregation’s preschool. They are three, four and five years old. Their questions about the story demand short answers. It is the perfect training ground for anyone who has been taught to think critically and academically about their faith. In that moment the child wants an answer that matches their developmental stage, their attention span, and above all must be treated as a genuine question. Saying I will get back to you on that does not work for kids at this age. They will just feel dismissed or that their question is not important to you. So with all of this in mind I thought about the word “Holy.”

To start with “holy” is not “good” or “sacred.” We can not define it as “good” as that word is often associated with morality. Something can be “holy” and “good.” However, at the same time something else that is “good” is not automatically “holy.” This is played out in our lives and in the lives of others every day. We can set our hearts on being “good,” but we cannot make or will ourselves into being “holy.”

Why not “sacred,” set apart? That which is “sacred” is set apart for use and service by that which is “holy.” The sacrament is used by the Holy One for, with, and through the people of God.

Dismissing these words and remembering that the target audience is a three year old I landed on the following explanation. Holy means “there is nothing greater.” Connecting it to liturgy or a scripture reading is vital in the explanation so let’s take Isaiah 6:3 where the prophet is caught up in a vision of the Lord sitting upon a throne with Seraphs attending calling out to one another Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” This would now read “There is nothing greater, there is nothing greater, there is nothing greater than the Lord of hosts…”

Now, I will say that children at this age may not have the ability to differentiate between lesser and greater. If that is the case let us use what every child knows from a very early age. “Best.” Every child knows what the word “best” means. For them chocolate ice cream may be the best or their mom or dad, or Grammy or dog or cat, or the movie Frozen or…..you get my point. So as awkward as it sounds to the theologically developed adult ear for the sake of the child’s development and encouraging them to keep asking questions we can read the Isaiah passage as “Best, Best, Best is God…”

How would you explain it to a young child? Cherish the question and foster in them a desire to know more!


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