During Lent, we ponder our sins. We begin with a reminder of being but dust. We sing in minor keys, which stirs in us lament and grief. We remember our desperate need to repent. We look to what Christ endured and grieve the passion of our Lord. And it is meet and right so to do.

But, as we come careening toward Maundy Thursday every year, it is not only the unjust suffering of Jesus or even lament over our sin that throws us to the ground. There is something else — something just beyond. This week, I have actually taken a moment to let myself feel that discomfort a bit — to know it better — and I discover that I am quite familiar with this uniquely shaped knot in my stomach.

I am a southern woman. I am the daughter of generation upon generation of women who think Emily Post is a bit loosey goosey at times. The rules of southern etiquette revolve around a few core principles, one of which is that you shalt never be in anyone’s social debt. The rules that spring from this principle could fill reams. If I have received a gift, that puts me in the position of being in someone’s debt. But if I send a thank-you note, I am back to equal footing (provided of course that it is hand written, charming, and on monogrammed stationery, the best paper, preferably ecru). When someone invites you to supper, you never arrive empty handed. If they decline your offer to bring a dish to assist with the meal, you take a bottle of wine, a small plant, or fancy paper cocktail napkins (one can never have too many). Our mothers teach us to reciprocate invitations. They had us to supper? Now it is our turn. The rules go on and on — but you see the principle. Avoid, at all costs, finding yourself on the long end of the stick.

(And, I’ll defend the actual rules another time — really, they’re mostly good advice about community living. Out-nicing one another isn’t the worst operating system. Idolatry always follows good things, after all.)

We all know the stereotyped ugly side of this system — the side that gives our sort a (justified) bad rap. Ugliness abounds when we start measuring others’ obligations instead of our own. Instead of seeking to reciprocate our invitations, we note that Sally and Phil have never had us to theirs, though they’ve been here two or three times. Instead of making sure our hostess knows we appreciate her, we comment to our husbands on the empty hands of our dinner guests. And may God protect the young bride about whom it is muttered around town, “And I don’t think she ever sent me a note. Bless her heart.” (I was that young bride. God has protected me. From most folks.)

But that’s not actually the ugly side of this give-and-take system of social currency. That’s a middling little sin compared to the real tragedy. The ghastly consequence is actually the comfort we derive from having successfully followed the rules. Even when we rise above petty, uncharitable judgments, we will never rise above resting in freedom from social debt. We will never escape our satisfaction in owing nothing, in having issued more invitations than we have received, in having written our notes, in showing up with a bottle of cab and even sticking around to help with the dishes. There is a balm in the sticky, sweaty South — being known as a woman who always pays her social debts. And if she can find herself in position of a banker with all manner of loans outstanding, well, then she soars to ecstasy unknown.

That knot in my stomach that I feel on this and every Maundy Thursday is the same shape of the knot I feel when I know that someone has done for me and I have not returned the favor. I am fairly bad at the performance of the southern rules (see the aforementioned unwritten thank-you notes), but I’m quite good at the guilt. We recently had an old college buddy and his delightful wife over for supper. They had hosted us a few years ago, when we were in the midst of a very overwhelming season of life. And I had not reciprocated. They left my house after supper, and I legitimately felt a weight lift. After more than two years. It sounds nuts. Come to Mississippi — I can teach you.

My sin horrifies me often — most days, I have a keen awareness of it, though there can never be enough. The suffering and sacrifice of my Savior fills me with awe and wonder at His love — and horror and grief at my part in nailing Him to that tree. But, neither of those things is what finally breaks me.

It is my profanely empty hands that push me to the ground and leave me prostrate in the dust. On Maundy Thursday, it is the trauma of grace that does me in.

So, I join Saint R. F. Capon in his prayer:

Lord, please restore to us the comfort of merit and demerit. Show us that there is at least something we can do. Tell us that at the end of the day there will at least be one redeeming card of our very own. Lord, if it is not too much to ask, send us to bed with a few shreds of self-respect upon which we can congratulate ourselves. But whatever you do, do not preach grace. Give us something to do, anything; but spare us the indignity of this indiscriminate acceptance.

But that is a prayer that the Lord will not answer. He cannot. He loves us too much. He is full of mercy, and He knows our frame. Even the smallest requirement — one tiny thing we could point to — would break us, because we would fail at even that.

But, gosh do we want it. I want it. Just tell me the thing which I can do, so I can do it, so this knot will go away. Give me my bill, so I can pay it. When the check is in the mail, I will sleep like a baby. He stubbornly refuses to email me my invoice. Repentance will never suffice; it is penance I demand. But He won’t be budged.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul exclaims that he has been crucified with Christ. It is this very comfort of merit that dies in our union to Christ’s death. It is no small death. At birth, we humans begin a lifelong project of self-justification. And the cross robs us of it. It kills our magnum opus. In the very next verse, Paul says, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” If there was anything we could do, the passion is pointless.

We are slain by the very method of our redemption. We have complete need, and He made an unimaginable sacrifice. And both of those are so hard. But the thing that sends me to the very bottom of the valley of the shadow of death is having not one iota of anything I can claim as mine in the transaction.

And we are not the first ones to find ourselves unable to bear it.

In a recent sermon (in a miniseries I highly recommend), a dear friend and pastor of mine examined this trauma on the first Maundy Thursday in the upper room. Peter can’t take it. The love that Christ is going to pour out the very next day — by washing our souls with his blood — is prefigured in a live action parable at the foot washing of the last supper. And Peter just can’t even. Because that is the final assault. Anything but you washing my feet, Lord. Anything but this. But there is nothing but that.

Rev. Felker reminded us of one of the more poignant expressions of this trauma — an interaction between Valjean and the Bishop in Hugo’s Les Mis. Valjean steals valuable silver from a church where he has been shown nothing but hospitality and charity. He is caught by the law, and brought back to the church. The Bishop meets him and the three officers and utters a stunningly holy lie. He tells the officers that he had given Valjean the silver, and then compounds the insult by reminding the thief to take yet more — the candlesticks he forgot. The Bishop whispers to Valjean:

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” (End Scene.)

This has ministered to many as a beautiful picture of the grace we experience at the foot of the cross.

But the next chapter is often forgotten. Valjean doesn’t exuberantly thank the Bishop. Nor does he reflect calmly on the amazing grace he has been shown. He is not pushed to joy or gratitude or even lament at his own unworthiness. He wanders, incapable of much of anything. In fact, immediately in the wake of this, he is so injured in spirit, he exhibits his cruelest moment in the entire tome, stealing a coin from a little boy. Hugo gives us a glimpse into Valjean’s mind:

[The words of the Bishop] recurred to his mind unceasingly. To this celestial kindness he opposed pride, which is the fortress of evil within us. He was indistinctly conscious that the pardon of this priest was the greatest assault and the most formidable attack which had moved him yet…that a struggle, a colossal and final struggle, had been begun between his viciousness and the goodness of that man.

Meeting Christ in the upper room, in Gethsemane, on Calvary is painful for many reasons, but the final straw is the unrelenting assault on our pride that is God’s one-way love called Grace. We desperately plead, in our foolish self-reliance, for a requirement. We are bid to come to the feast and we are not even allowed to bring a damn thing. It is a knife like no other. We will never pay the debt.  We will always rely only and entirely on His work, His goodness, His grace, Him. Pride’s only cure is its death. And it’s going to keep hurting. Because our old man will keep appearing, pointing to our filthy rags and claiming participation in our own redemption. And Jesus will keep washing our feet, killing our self-made dignity, only to restore it with His on Easter morn.

Valjean is not the only one to sin profoundly in the wake of this violent surgery done upon the soul. Peter has his feet washed and heads out to deny Christ three times. After suffering the humiliation of unconditional love, Peter is thrown into such spiritual turmoil that he does the very thing he hates. Christ doesn’t bat an eye — His love for his own cannot be changed by our awfulness. He catches Peter in the act, and restores him with one look.

Resurrection comes, and Christ is not finished in his care. He doesn’t just save us — He wipes away our tears. He prioritizes the comforting of those His work has traumatized. We see him pursue Peter to restore his dignity, giving him an opportunity to overturn his three denials with three affirmations. Jesus looks at this prideful and cowardly failure and declares that that is where He will build his church.

We worship a God who cares about our sorrow, even when that sorrow is a direct result of our refusal to accept the free gift He wants us to have. He is not content just to save us in pieces; He wants to make us whole. His pursuit is relentless.

And that is why this week — and life — of death will always end in Alleluias. And in heaven, I will have no thank-you notes to write.