The symbol of Christianity is a cross, not a smiley face.

I write this on the Tuesday of Holy Week, the week we remember the final earthly mission of Jesus Christ, culminating in his sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. When I was a pastor, I would silently refer to this as “Holy Hell Week.” I was expected to do four times as much ministry and all with a cheerful demeanor. It was only by the grace of God that I did, at least to the degree that I did.

Easter, of course, was designed to be the spiritual peak, the week you could reach many more folks than the rest of the year. People came to hear the Good News that “Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed.” Because Christ is risen, we have the hope of new life in Christ.

Very few from the Easter crowd had come to the Good Friday service where we remember what it cost Jesus to pay for our new life. It cost him everything. Betrayal by a disciple. Denial by another. False accusation from his people. Torture beyond measure. Spiritual separation as he takes on the sins of the world. Hideous death.

The symbol for Christianity is a cross, not a smiley face. The path that leads to a closer walk with Jesus is not a red carpet. It is one full of thorny brush, broken glass, steep hills and treacherous cliffs. Following Jesus is much more than just a dividend check for a life well lived. It is death to ourselves and total transformation in Christ.

Since my mental illness has progressed and I no longer serve as a pastor, I don’t make it to every service. When I do go, I sometimes sit in the overflow room where parents with young children can go and still hear the service. Last year, I was feeling emotionally raw during the Easter service. I felt alone in the crowd. My mood was far from the cheer the occasion would warrant.

I bowed my head and tried to pray away the depression that hounded me, muster up the joy of new life in Christ. But it just wasn’t in me. I began to weep. In the middle of a hymn. The prospect of praise eluded me. I could barely stand to be there.

Just as I was about to leave, I felt a gentle presence at my side. I looked down and saw a beautiful little girl in a pink Easter dress with a matching purse was singing beside me. Her father was holding her right hand and she offered me her left. I smiled through my tears.

The symbol for Christianity is a cross, not a smiley face. But thanks to the life-giving power of God in Christ, it is an empty cross. That is something to smile about.