Holy Week is depressing

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

A friend of mine confessed that he doesn't like going to the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, because he always leaves church depressed.  As if that were a bad way to feel.

In our psychologically oriented, feel good society we tend to view depression as a malady to be treated as a sickness to be healed.  To be sure, a lot of what is diagnosed as depression is a mental illness which should be responded to with medication and talk therapy.

But there is a form of "depression"—or maybe a better term is sadness--which is actually a sign of good health. 

I'm sure I'm using the term depression  in a vernacular sense that will make clinical psychologists shudder.  The Mayo Clinic gives this definition of depression online: "Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depression, major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems."

What I mean by depression definitely includes sad feelings, and it does affect how I feel, think and behave, but instead of leading to "a variety of emotional and physical problems," it is caused by being awakened to my own spiritual predicament and, if I embrace it, becomes the very door to a renewed and amended life.

 When I got divorced, I became depressed.  That depression caused me to stop in my tracks—literally, I was emotionally paralyzed—which forced me to question the direction of my life.  It was like the statement of the airline pilot: "I have some good news and some bad news.  The bad news is that we're lost.  The good news is that we're making real good time."

That post-divorce depression became the occasion for me to acknowledge that I was running in the wrong direction and repent—literally, turn around—and begin living my life differently.  A wake up call, if you will. 

That's what Lent in general and Holy Week in particular is supposed to do—make you depressed, in a non-clinical, spiritual sense of the word.  It is meant to make you set aside your pleasure at how fast you are going—how much "progress" you are making in life--and force you to grapple with the question of direction.

Let me put it another way.  The biblical story says that the human condition was in such a bad way that extreme measures had to be taken by God to bring the patient(s) back to health.  God sent his Son to die.  For me.  For us.

"But I am (we are) not that sick, not terminally at least," we protest.  "I might have a little spiritual flab here and there.  That's why I give up this or that for Lent—to get back in spiritual shape.  I don't need chemo or a transplant or anything that radical."

But the Holy Week story insists that a radical response is needed to treat the human condition.  "True enough," the Bible declares, "humans are created in God's image, the imago Dei, as theologians like to say.  Humans are mysteriously and wondrously made.  The problem you have to face is that you are not God.  You are created in God's image, but when you become dissatisfied with being a flight attendant and try to become the pilot, you wind up crashing the plane into the side of a mountain.  Painful for you and for everyone else who trusted you."

That's why going to church on Easter without having participated in Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is not health promoting.  It may be palliative, but not therapeutic.  Relief of pain is not to be equated with therapy.  Genuine therapy—physical, psychological and spiritual—actually causes pain in the process of promoting healing.  No pain.  No gain.

Living in the Holy Week story year after year is painful.  Walking with Jesus between the two Sundays—Palm and Ester—is depressing, in the colloquial sense of the word.  It is meant to bring you down, or rather back to your senses, not for the sake of causing pain but to the end that we get reoriented, one more time, and headed back in the right direction.

Or, as I heard at the beginning of worship Thursday evening, "Friends in Christ, in this Lenten season we have heard our Lord's call to struggle against sin, death, and the devil -- all that keeps us from loving God and each other.  Within the community of the church, God never wearies of forgiving sin and giving the peace of reconciliation. On this night let us confess our sin against God and our neighbor, and enter the celebration of the great Three Days reconciled with God and with one another."


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