The Easter Sunday sermon (John 20:1-18) I preached yesterday:
The three-point shot at the buzzer that wins the game. The “Hail Mary” pass, caught against all odds for the winning touchdown. The game-winning grand slam homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning. The improbable go ahead goal at the end of the match. The sudden event in a movie or a novel by which tragedy is just barely avoided and all ends well. We find such sudden turns of fortune exciting and deeply satisfying – at least when it’s our team sinking the three-pointer.
J. R. R. Tolkien coined the word eucatastrophe to describe such phenomena in mythology and literature. A catastrophe is a sudden overturn of things for the worse. A eucatastrophe is a sudden turn of events resulting in unexpected well-being. Eucatastrophe, according to Tolkien, provokes "a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, a piercing glimpse of joy and the heart's desire."
It is just such a eucatastrophe we celebrate in Easter. Indeed, Easter is the eucatastrophe par excellence. In the midst of the seeming tragedy of human history, God intervenes to overturn the usual way of sin, brokenness, and death. Tolkien said that the Incarnation was the eucatastophe of history and the Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.
This doesn’t mean that catastrophe isn’t real. That is what Good Friday is all about. We all know catastrophe. The torture terror and tragedy of this world are real. Disease and death are real. Estrangement and alienation are real. The hurt and heartache of our own lives are real. Christianity does not deny, ignore, or avoid that reality. Still, the promise of the Resurrection is that all the disappointments, failures and tragedies of our lives – physical, relational, moral, financial – are subsumed in that most hope-filled event. The catastrophe of sin and death is real. But, the eucatastrophe of Jesus’ death and resurrection is more real.
Mary Magdalene knew catastrophe. You don’t even have to go with the later, unbiblical tradition that she was a prostitute to understand that. Being human, she knew catastrophe. But, we are told she had been possessed by seven demons. What ever that reality was like, it was personally catastrophic. And then she encountered Jesus who healed her and liberated her. Through Jesus she had new hope, new joy, new life. And then there was the catastrophe of the crucifixion. Jesus was dead. And she thought she was dead too. As if that wasn’t enough, when she went in the morning to his tomb his body was gone. Catastrophe upon catastrophe, what new indignity was this? Was it not enough that they had tortured and executed him, did they have to mistreat his corpse as well?
But, then, she hears her Shepherd call her by name and she experiences an improbable but glorious eucatastrophe of life and hope and joy restored – "a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, a piercing glimpse of joy and the heart's desire."
Can you imagine how she must have felt? Back to Tolkien, I think there is a scene in The Return of the King, the last of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that might get at how Mary felt.
It involves Samwise Gamgee wakening to the presence of the great wizard, Gandalf. The last time Sam had seen Gandalf was the catastrophe of the wizard’s falling to his death against the Balrog demon in the mines of Moria.
Near the end of the story, when Sam awakes from a deep sleep of exhaustion after the destruction of the One Ring in Mount Doom, Gandalf stands before him alive, robed in white, his face glistening in the sunlight Gandalf greets Sam (imagine Jesus with Mary):
“Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?” (in the gospel, Jesus says, “Mary.”)
But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer.
At last he gasped: “Gandalf! (Rabouni/Teacher!) I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”
“A great shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days without count. It fell upon Sam's ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from bed…
“How do I feel?” he cried.” Well, I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel” – he waved his arms in the air – “I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!”
I wonder if Sam ever saw the world the same. I wonder if Mary Magdalene ever saw the world the same. Or did she forever see the world and her life with Easter eyes?
And now she saw eucatastrophe all around her: Every sunrise. Every spring. Every recovery from illness. Every reconciliation of estranged persons. Every act of forgiveness. Every birth. Every rebirth. All were now more then ordinary events. They were signs and anticipations of the day when all that was sad would come untrue. And even the sadness along the way. The disappointments and failures, and griefs. The dying of friends, and her own dying when it came, were now understood in a new light. There was still plenty of catastrophe in the world. Even after hearing Jesus call her name and reveal himself risen from the dead, Mary continued to walk in the valley of the shadow of death. But now that shadow was the shadow of the cross backlit by the brightness of resurrection joy.
This side of the final Eucatastrophe of the kingdom of God and the restoration of all things when everything sad will come untrue. We will suffer many little (and not so little) catastrophes along the way to our final breath. But, “Jesus Christ is raised from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
Because his tomb is empty, our hope is full. We can see the world and our own lives with Easter eyes. As Tolkien wrote, “This story begins and ends in joy.”