The most famous episode of The Brady Bunch is the one where Marcia takes a football to the nose.[1]

In the beginning of the episode, she is asked out by the school’s star football player and breaks off a date with her friend Charley, a rather unremarkable suitor by comparison. In breaking off the date, Marcia tells Charley, “Something suddenly came up.” Soon after, Marcia’s three brothers, playing outside, throw an errant football pass that smacks her in the nose, causing it to bruise and swell up. The next day at school, Marcia’s jock date sees her bruised and swollen nose and tells her, “Something suddenly came up.” Ouch.

It’s a tale of high moral drama, but it’s really the second-most famous episode of The Brady Brunch that brings theological force. This one is called “Confession, Confession” and features the enduring Brady quote, “Mom always said, don’t play ball in the house.” The episode illustrates substitutionary atonement and is a simple lesson in how to show love to a sinner.

Peter, the middle Brady boy, has plans to go camping over the weekend. It’s a rite of passage, so to speak, his first overnight away from his home and family. But while tossing a basketball indoors, Peter sends the ball careening down the stairs, smashing his mother’s favorite vase onto the floor.

The Brady kiddos know the consequences. Grounding. No camping trip. The elder brother, Greg, suggests that Peter confess…but that maybe he can wait until after the trip. The cover-up grows when their mother Carol sees the boys at the hardware store buying glue. Things fall apart when the hastily repaired vase leaks water all over the dinner table. It’s a TV classic. The jig is up.

Here’s where the love really kicks in. Knowing that Peter is about to lose out on his camping trip, each of the five Brady siblings, independently and without consulting one another, confess to their parents that they were the guilty party. Greg, Bobby, Marcia, Jan, and Cindy all privately pull a parent aside to confess to breaking their mother’s vase. In a noble attempt to keep their brother from missing his trip, each sibling takes upon themselves the task of being the substitute, taking the punishment to save the brother they love.

That’s remarkable, by the way, given what we know about the Brady family. Remember how the theme song goes? “Till the one day when the lady met this fellow, and they knew it was much more than a hunch”? Although it rarely surfaces in the show, the theme song informs us that the Brady siblings are step-siblings, not biologically related. Not only that, but they sleep three to a bedroom: three boys in one room, three girls in the other. Oh, and they share one bathroom between the six of them. In the real world, Carol and Mike Brady would be pulling out their hair trying to keep their six kids from mutual strangulation. Hence why the scene is so remarkable: even the Brady girls identify strongly enough with their guilty brother that they step forward in an attempt to take his place.

And in the episode’s best gag, even Alice the Maid gets in on the action, offering herself in Peter’s place as the guilty party.[2]

Steven Paulson, guest-speaker at last fall’s Mockingbird conference in Oklahoma City, made the observation that parents are rarely able to speak grace into the lives of their children because their default role as parents is one of law and consequences. (His follow-up observation is that grandparents often fill the void of a gracious familial authority.) Such is the case with parents Mike and Carol, who quickly put two-and-two together and realize that Peter is the guilty child. For the rest of the episode, they turn up the psychological pressure. Peter is assigned the role of punishing his siblings. Still, his siblings hold the line, recommitting to their ruse so Peter can go camping. Peter’s parents step up their game, too, gifting Peter a new lantern to take with him on his trip. They say it’s a reward for being the only honest child, which is really just a full-court guilt-press. The crushing torment of his responsibility finally crushes Peter when, backpack packed and leaving the front door to go camping, he confesses to his parents. He tells his friends he can’t go camping, and essentially grounds himself for the weekend.

Yet there is more love, and more substitution, to be had. Peter spends his grounded weekend doing the chores that he had assigned his siblings. Having participated in the cover-up, each sibling had joined the ranks of the wrongdoer as well. And so in a grand act of substitution, Peter washes the window screens and mows the back lawn, giving his siblings back the free weekend they had sacrificed for him. His mother calls it “a mighty fine gesture.” And in one final laugh, she drops the shards of the previously shattered vase, destroying it beyond repair. We are all sinners, it seems.

On one level, the episode is a parable about the importance of telling the truth, and the final shots of Mike and Carol proudly watching their son do the right thing push that narrative to the forefront. Still, there’s a deeper magic in play here. The real story in this episode is the love of Peter’s siblings in the form of substitution. They were willing to take the punishments Peter deserved. That’s real love.

TV Land isn’t real life, but who doesn’t wish for a sibling substitute, someone who, out of love, would step in on our behalf? But surely, nobody would step in if the problem were more serious. After all, a broken vase is easily replaced. And when the punishments are simple household chores, well, those things have to be done eventually, anyway. But if the offenses are felonious and the punishments are capital, the substitutions become, understandably, less frequent.

Hence why, to quote T.S. Eliot, “we call this Friday good.” In a world where real substitution is rarely practiced, it is world-changing news to think that God’s love would manifest in precisely that way. Just ask Barabbas.

And so, readers, have a Very Brady Holy Week. Give thanks that, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus didn’t peace out and leave a note saying, “Something suddenly came up.” Observe that, on Good Friday, love fully manifested itself in substitution.

And Rejoice on Easter Sunday that someone accomplished all the tasks on your behalf.

[1] The most famous quote from The Brady Bunch is middle sister Jan’s lament at her sister’s seemingly perfect life: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” I would argue the quote is more famous than the episode, though I am willing to have my mind changed.

[2] For the uninformed, actress Ann B. Davis, who played Alice the Maid, left acting in 1976 to join an Episcopal religious community led by Bishop William Frey. When Bp. Frey became dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, she relocated with him and his wife to Ambridge, PA, and took classes at the seminary. She is not listed as a writer on the episode. But perhaps it was her uncredited theological influence?