The shame and guilt of Holy Week
“Why are you not having any candy?”
“’Cause I gave it up for Lent.”
So went many conversations with friends every February in my growing up years. Though I’ve gone to church all my life, this was my “education” in any kind of religious observance leading up to Easter Sunday.
A few of my friends had Catholic backgrounds so they observed Lent and sometimes would miss school to attend a Good Friday service, if we weren’t already off for a snow day. I didn’t know what Maundy Thursday was and I still sometimes unthinkingly call Good Friday “Black Friday”—whether they do it consciously or not, lots of people at my church wear black that day.
I’ve always loved Easter, and for more than ten years now I’ve been part of a church community that devotes time to remembering the events that lead to Resurrection Sunday. It’s been a welcome change of pace, because it puts everything in perspective and gives gravity to a holiday known for candy and new clothes and egg laying rabbits. I love that.
Easter is a big deal at our church, and rightfully so. The singing is loud and the “He is Risen’s” overflow. And a lot of that has to do with Holy Week, starting with Palm Sunday and working through the week of Jesus’s Passion together as a church community.
But I’ve noticed something about myself over time. In recent years, I’ve not minded missing one of those extra Holy Week services as much as I used to. I’ve been content watching the littler kids in childcare while the adults were spending time in “dark Gethsemane” or singing “Were You There?”
I caught myself thinking and feeling that way again recently. Why is that? I love those services, right? Maybe you can relate.
An oft-used song leading up to Easter is “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.” The middle verse goes like this:
Behold the man upon the cross,
My sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished;
His dying breath has brought me life –
I know that it is finished.
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers
That’s it, right there. Celebrating the Resurrection is one thing. But being reminded that it’s my sin that put Jesus on the cross—that’s something different.
Might I suggest that that’s really what keeps whole churches from celebrating Holy Week? That having the hard, solemn services brings to mind our guilt, and forces us to reckon with the cross?
Many reading this will want to say, “Don’t stop singing there! That’s your problem! ‘His dying breath has brought me life!’ See! It’s alright! Jesus has wiped out your guilt and shame!”
Yes and amen! Jesus freed us from sin. But not so that we would forget what we looked like. While we are in fact a new creation and sin no longer condemns us, we must still remember that “such were some of you.” Sin no longer reigns, but we still groan and labor under sin. We’ve been made alive to Christ, but the final ‘it is finished’ doesn’t come until we see Him face to face.
This is the job of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services: to make sure we count ourselves with Judas and Peter in their betrayal and denial of the Lord. To make sure we feel our culpability along with those calling out, “Crucify!” and the ones leaving Jesus up there to die alone.
Living in this tension is terribly hard. It takes discipline and vigilance not to despair, but to keep fighting ourselves. We’ve bought into the lie that guilt and shame are always out of place, and that anything that makes us face them—like the discipline of Holy Week—is bad. When forced to face our very real and grievous sin against a holy God…many of us won’t.
Just give me the Resurrection, we say, to make me feel warm and happy and free. That’s what’s life-giving.
But it doesn’t work that way. The good isn’t as good when you don’t bring in the full weight of the bad. Stars shine brightest against the blackness of night. You don’t get the matchless grace of Jesus and his resurrection victory without the shameful betrayal in the garden and at the cross.
Another song commonly sung during Holy Week is Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted. Here is verse three:
Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed,
See who bears the awful load;
‘Tis the WORD, the LORD’S ANOINTED,
Son of Man and Son of God.
Give yourself to preparing your heart for Easter Sunday this week. Go to dark Gethsemane, and face down your own sinful, dark heart. It was your sin that put Jesus on the cross. It was your voice calling out among the scoffers. And it was His voice that cried out in anguish when all of your sin was laid on him and He said, “It is finished.” The more deeply you know your own sin, the sweeter it is to know that Jesus came to save sinners.
Whether your church has Holy Week services or not, you can still do the work of preparing for Easter. Below is a list of hymns to help prepare your heart (and help your kids learn them, too!). Musicians at our church have compiled a resource for church people and musicians where you can hear, sing, and play these songs for free.
Ah, Holy Jesus
Beneath the Cross of Jesus
Come Boldly to the Throne of Grace
In Christ Alone
Man of Sorrows
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted
There is a Fountain Filled With Blood
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Also, I’ve created a Spotify playlist for Holy Week. But don’t judge me for some of the versions of these songs, it’s not easy to find good ones.
And don’t leave out Shai Linne’s the Atonement.