The Eucatastrophe of Easter
This year, however, I have benefitted from having a long lead-in time to Easter. In February our church began a sermon series on the ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel; considering the extraordinary claims that Jesus made about himself. That series will culminate on Easter Sunday. Last week I spent some time writing a series of daily devotionals for Easter week, looking at Palm Sunday, Judas’ betrayal, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the crucifixion, and the pain and silence of Easter Saturday. For the first time, our church is running a Good Friday service, where we will focus on the crucifixion and consider Jesus’ final sayings from the cross.
So in different ways over the past few weeks, I have been building towards and growing in expectation of Easter Sunday. In fact, I would say I am aching for it! I can’t wait for it!
That’s the power of story. It primes you for a conclusion, it readies you for a resolution.
Tolkien, in his essay On Fairy Stories, teases out some of the key features of mythology and applies them to the Christian gospel. Whether you think of yourself as a fan of fantasy literature or not (Lord of the Rings aside, I would put myself firmly in the latter category!) it is well worth a read for the light that it sheds on storytelling.
He argues that all fairy tales must have a Consolation of a Happy Ending – in fact, that is the essence of fairy tale – the consolation is to fairy tale what tragedy is to drama. But since he can find no word to suitably describe this kind of ending he coins his own: the eucatastrophe – a good catastrophe – where through a sudden and unexpected turn, a miraculous burst of grace, which cannot be counted on to recur, darkness gives way to light; sadness to joy; death to life.
I appreciate this term, but it must be distinguished from the literary tool of Deus ex Machina, ‘God from the Machine.’ In Greek Theatre, actors playing gods would be lowered onto the stage by a crane in order to intervene in an otherwise irresolvable story. Thus misery could be solved in an instant by an entirely contrived appearance of a god, who has played little or no part in the rest of the plot, and is literally wheeled in for the sole purpose of rectifying the story (and getting the author out of a tight spot).
Deus ex Machina brings help from outside the story, eucatastrophe from within. Eucatastrophe doesn’t result in change apart from some catastrophic or traumatic event, but precisely through it. Eucatastrophe is no less miraculous than Deus ex Machina, it still requires intervention, but it does have the benefit of correlating with the logic of the story. The answer comes from something internal to the narrative, not external. One might almost say there is a prophetic element to it; it was always there though unperceived, weaved into the fabric of the story from the start (cf.John 20:9; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 1 Peter 1:10-12).
Imagine sitting down with someone who has no knowledge of Lord of the Rings and trying to explain in purely logical terms exactly why this small metallic object must be thrown into some lava, and why that will somehow defeat a devilish, fiery, hovering contact-lens and rescue the world. You can’t do it on principles alone. But once you begin to weave the story, it yearns for the eucatastrophic climax. I would venture to say that the story has to end the way that it does. There is an inner logic to the piece that compels it towards that ending. Hints and themes from the beginning of the story start to converge and give you hope for the climax, such that even when the evil takes over Frodo at the last moment, you know it won’t end there. It can’t. Fairy stories never do.
I wonder if part of the reason we sometimes struggle to make Easter connect with people is that we treat it too much like an abstract principle, and less like the culmination of a story. Perhaps we fail to give it the lead-in time it deserves, and don’t take sufficient steps to weave the whole story: the claims, the life lived, the deeds done, the adulation from the crowd, the anger from the religious leaders, and so on. I wonder if we do people a disservice by presenting the catastrophe to which the resurrection is the eucatastrophe as a principle rather than a story longing for its foreordained conclusion. And so our explanations seem abstract and incomprehensible, or like an invocation of a Deus ex Machina in order to explain away what would otherwise be a quite barbaric event.
On Sunday I get to preach on the eucatastrophe of Easter, and I cannot wait. I ride on the back of three months of examining the life of Jesus, of a week of building to the cross through the story of Holy Week, of a morning spent meditating on the cries from the cross, of a Saturday spent in quiet and doubt. And in a strange sort of way, I think that makes my job easier. The story contains an inner logic that compels me towards hope, and I get to show how that logic works itself out. After all we’ve seen and heard, how can the story not end in joy? How can it notend in life?
Tolkien puts it like this:
The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is of Creation.