Sacred Gloom: The Relieving Grief of Holy Week

I have been involved in the Christian tradition for most of my life. I went to a non-denominational Christian school from fifth to tenth grade, a Catholic High School, and have attended two Catholic universities, one of which I teach at this very day. I’ve been committed to Christ for most of my life and fully intend to continue that way, though my journey of what that means has seen many changes, with many more still to come, I doubt it not.

People often complain about Christianity for its gloom – for the puritanical streak, the killjoy side of Christianity. It’s the complaint that sings “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints – the sinners are much more fun.” But this is actually the easy attack on Christianity to respond to, for the reason that I think, emotionally speaking, it’s the opposite of what really bothers people about Christians, including Christians themselves. It’s not the gloom and doom of Christianity people don’t like. People actually love that – it’s why there are so many stories about Apocalypse, fire falling from the sky, total chaos, cats and dogs living together, and Bill Murray’s heart-pounding request to speak with Dana. Of course, nobody likes having their own fun times condemned as sinful, but if you shift your focus to a general dissatisfaction with the way human beings live their lives, you’ll find their puritanical streak quickly, whether they’re condemning Republicans or Democrats, Communists or Capitalists, Christians or Atheists, Team Captain America or Team Tony Stark (Team Tony, obviously – never side against someone with facial hair that perfect).

Look, my point is, people actually don’t mind professions of gloom as long as they don’t feel personally attacked by them. What people really find upsetting about Christians, I think, is a cheerfulness that seems out of touch with how bad things are, with bombings or shootings or natural disasters or horrible diseases or political upheavals that marry our lives to despair, violence, death, and outright insanity. The problem of evil is raised, and Christians love to march out Revelation 21:4: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” And don’t mistake me here. I’m a Christian, and I absolutely believe those words are true and from the inspired Word of God. But when I see what happens in Paris, Beirut, San Bernardino, Brussels, Iraq, and on and on, and I see some facile sprinkling of verses like that, Scriptural comfort confetti, I feel sick. It makes me almost, dare I say it, hate those words a little bit, because it feels so dishonest. Because come on: this stuff is bad, and the tears are not wiped away. They are still flowing. The hearts are broken. Don’t come to me and tell me in my grief that it’s all going to be okay, as if it already is. Because it’s not okay, it is evil, and heaviness of heart is the correct reaction

Let me be frank: dismissing heaviness of heart about evil in the world is weak-tea, watered down Christianity, where people maintain a pretended optimism that somehow pretends to be more impervious than their Savior’s. Jesus wept before he rose Lazarus. He sweated blood about his own death before His Father raised him up from the dead. He did not lose heart, he didn’t despair, but he didn’t pretend like evil wasn’t evil.

Being a Christian implies a real invitation to be joyful, to believe that good things are waiting on the other side of the dark nights of the soul both private and public. Christians have to be a testimony to others that there is real hope and comfort at the foot of the Cross because of the empty tomb. But to be honest with others, and to be honest with ourselves, we need to face and name the weight of darkness that we all face in the world, regardless of our beliefs. Non-Christians feel that weight too, and it’s no surprise that they find our testimonies specious if all they hear is optimism. But on the other side of it, it’s not good to dwell on our past sins or the dangers of the world at the expense of maintaining an open posture to the joy of the Messiah’s embrace. For our own devotional lives, for our peace of mind and our sanity, we have to admit that it hurts. It hurts so deeply and so truly, and no doubt need enter into the comfort we take in the assurance of salvation to admit that adjacent, less comfortable truth.

That to me, I think, is the blessing of Ash Wednesday and Lent in general, but of Holy Week in particular. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our death and all that might imply, and Lent readjusts the perspective on the things to which we give value in our lives. But the penitential and purgative season of Lent culminates in the jarring days of the Triduum. On Maundy Thursday, Communion is not only celebrated as the blessing and sacrament that it is, but also to the deep injustice of the world that led the Paschal Lamb to the slaughter. That easy transition from recognizing “Oh, of course I am a sinner” to “But God has forgiven me” is atrophied by the stark memory of Good Friday, where we reflect on the terribleness of the Good, the roaring nature of goodness like Aslan, the danger of being before inherent and essential justice when we have been a source of judgment, agony, and pain for others and have failed to live the lives we know we are called to live. Ah, does that sound Puritanical, harsh, self-flagellating? Perhaps, but I fear worse the charge that those admissions are just a show, a necessary prelude to the all-too-easy resolution of Easter Day.

Maundy Thursday, the eve of expectation, sets up Good Friday’s remembrance of the weight that Christ bore for us, the physical, spiritual violence heaped upon Christ, the same darkness that clouds the world even now in the form of terrorism, bigotry, hatred, and every manner of injustice. But there’s an element of hot spectacle to Good Friday that in some ways makes it more bearable, the severity of the lashings. I used to think Good Friday was the hardest day to bear in the liturgical calendar; it is certainly the saddest one, for the same reason that it leads to the happiest one. But Holy Saturday, if less violent in its urgency, is the coldest day. The Savior, entombed. We remember the apostles and the dear women and the other Christians who live a whole day with their beloved teacher and Messiah just…. Gone. Christ himself felt the cold breath of the absence of the Father, and now the Son is liturgically hid from us.

Now we have the official freedom to admit it. God feels hidden sometimes. Christ’s sanctifying blood seems to leave the spots of our sins that we are promised will be removed. Some days you feel the Spirit awake in your heart like a brilliant fire, energizing and bursting through the clouds of sadness and pain, and you cannot fathom disbelief in those times. But it is not always so; disbelief, if not embraced, even so sounds a note of reality all around the world. The Son of God is dead, and with Him all our religion, spirituality, high minded cheerfulness. We have the relief of having our own hopes and certainty entombed with Christ, where we are no longer responsible, no longer have any means, to be the power by which faith is restored. Mournful, yes, but honestly mournful, and there is a rest for the soul in that earnest grief.

The coldness of Holy Saturday could set in too deeply, and the honesty of a heavy heart can too easily become despair. We go to sleep with our hearts crucified and our hopes buried, our grief eased but not truly dispelled or comforted. We admit, with a sigh of relief, that it is still a fallen world, and it still hurts. Even this Sunday, we know that the true Easter will still be tomorrow, for the tears will have not yet been wiped away.

Tomorrow the jarring clarion call against the threat of complacency in our sins and the darkness of the world is sounded, and we put our hands in the scars of our Savior’s hands, feet, and side. Tomorrow we will encounter that miracle – that we need not accept the grief as the end of the story. Tomorrow, triumphantly “He is risen” shall in earnest ring again and the joy of reunion with the whole heavenly host and the creation-consuming glory of the Creator shall restore our earthly glimpse of the Promised Land. Tomorrow we will sing and pray and be called to the Feast and be made together the Living Body of Christ the King. Tomorrow, Joy, against all our cynicism and despair, prevails with all its unimaginable and inexorable sovereignty.

But not today. Today we admit the sacred gloom.