Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men,
When He intended to redeem mankind.
–From “The Dream of the Rood” (Anglo-Saxon, 8th century, trans. Richard Hammer in 1970)
Today is Good Friday, the first day of the Easter Triduum. This is the day when we remember, with gravity and sorrow, the most cataclysmic event of human history: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Tomorrow is Holy Saturday, the day of silence, the day when He lay dead in a borrowed tomb.
But Sunday? On Sunday we celebrate the Great Eucatastrophe.
J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings) invented the term “eucatastrophe” from the Greek prefix “eu,” meaning “good,” to the word “catastrophe,” which, in literary terms, means the “unraveling” of a story’s plot. “Eucatastrophe,” then, means “a sudden and favorable resolution of events in a story; a happy ending.”
In Tolkien’s own words:
“I coined the word eucatastrophe: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth. Your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. […] And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.“
The reason we feel joy when Aslan defeats the White Witch, Aragorn claims his rightful place as king, or Captain Marvel utterly destroys the powers of evil and deceit, is because those scenes point us to the Truth. They speak to our innate desire to see the victory of goodness–and the greatest Victory they ultimately reflect is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We can’t experience the full intensity of that triumph, however, unless we’ve felt sorrow first–which is why it’s so important for us to reflect on just how earth-shattering the events of Good Friday were…and still are. Put yourself in the Disciples’ shoes; imagine how heartbreaking it must’ve been to watch your dearest Friend endure betrayal and brutal Roman torture. Think, too, of Mary’s pain as she watched her son–the one born in Bethlehem and worshiped by shepherds and kings–die a shameful, agonizing death.
Just as importantly, however, think of yourself. Think of the role we played–and still play–in the Easter story. It was our sin that held Jesus to that cross. Out of love for us He put on human flesh, made Himself obedient unto death, lay dead in the tomb, and rose victorious. He took our guilt upon Himself so that all who repent and put their faith in Him are made righteous in the sight of God the Father.
I think the whole world got a unique glimpse of Eucatastrophe this past Monday, when the Notre-Dame Cathedral caught fire. This gorgeous church, which took two hundred years to build, has been a symbol of Christian civilization for nearly nine centuries. A Facebook post I wrote that was later republished on a new friend’s blog details the historical, spiritual, and emotional significance of Notre-Dame, and for time’s sake I won’t repeat it here–but I was so overwhelmed by the loss, it literally made my chest ache. The heartbreak I felt was so visceral, I thought more than once that I was going to break down and cry.
Miraculously, however, the Parisian firefighters were able to save the cathedral’s exterior structure. When that news broke–oh, the joy! At least the frame survived, we all thought. But then, when the firefighters stepped inside to survey the damage, miracle upon miracle revealed itself. Yes, the roof is gone; yes, the medieval timber is gone. But the great organ with its 7,800 pipes survived. Many of the priceless statues and works of art had already been moved out for renovations. Even the three Rose Windows–incredible pieces of medieval stained glass–are, amazingly, intact.
But the most breathtaking photo of all, in my opinion, is of the altar, its golden cross standing triumphant amid smoldering debris. To me–and to many Christians the world over–this sight was all the more poignant (and tear-jerking!) because this is Holy Week. This is when we remember how the Cross broke forever the power of sin and darkness and death. This is when we remember the happiest of happy endings.
And so, even in the ruins of Notre-Dame, we see the astonishing glory of the Greatest Eucatastrophe: “that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
Beauty now for ashes wear,
Perfumes for the garb of woe.
Chaplets for dishevelled hair,
Dances for sad footsteps slow;
Open wide your hearts that they
Let in joy this Easter Day.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins