Please forgive me. I wrestled long and hard over this. I’m aware that J.R.R. Tolkien gets too much airtime at ChristChurch London, but in my defence, I’m not quoting Lord of the Rings…
In his essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien writes about the power of storytelling. The essence of a powerful myth, he argues, is the kind of twist 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. And since he can find no existing word to describe this kind of ending he coins his own: eucatastrophe – a good catastrophe.
Have you ever watched a film where the ending is both totally unexpected and yet strangely inevitable? You’re left thinking, “I didn’t see that coming”, but at the same time, it could hardly have happened any other way? That’s eucatastrophe.
Have you read stories in which the joyous ending comes not by avoiding catastrophe, but precisely through it? Not by someone coming from outside and rescuing the characters from impending doom, but by the hero looking danger in the face and emerging wounded but victorious? That’s eucatastrophe.
The power of the perfect myth, for Tolkien, is that it primes you for the conclusion from the earliest moments. As you follow the story through, it leaves you longing for the inevitable resolution, such that even when events take you into darkest despair, you know you’re bound to re-emerge into the light of day. You have to. That’s the way these stories work.
‘The Gospels contain 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.’
For Tolkien, Jesus’ death and resurrection is the greatest story ever told, precisely because it is a true myth; the archetypal eucatastrophe. It has the strange feeling of being both utterly unexpected and yet strangely inevitable. Almost as though it had been woven into God’s plan from the beginning of Creation’s story (cf. John 20:9; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 1 Peter 1:10-12).
We’re currently in the time of year known as Lent, where for two-thousand years the church has found great value in practices that immerse us into the story of Easter, reminding us of the inner logic of the narrative – the fear and dread as Jesus made his final ascent towards Jerusalem; the agonising pain of Good Friday; the silence and despair of Saturday. And when you’ve followed the story that far, you kind of feel like, despite the darkness, resolution is inevitable. The components of the story compel us towards hope. Eucatastrophe is looming. After all we’ve seen and heard, how can the story not end in joy? How can it not end in life?
At ChristChurch London, we want to explore this story in a number of ways. In the run up to Easter we’re going to be preaching a sermon series called The Cross of Christ, considering why this ancient, gruesome symbol – the cross – has remained such a source of hope, and why one man’s death outside Jerusalem continues to be profoundly relevant in twenty-first century London.
In Easter week, beginning April 14, we will walk day-by-day through the final stages of Jesus’ life. Each morning we will post a short Bible study that will remind us of the events of the first Easter. On 18 April, Good Friday, we will gather together to take communion and reflect on Jesus’ final hours on the cross. Then on Easter Sunday, we will celebrate his resurrection and baptise people as a representation of their journey to faith in Jesus and the new life he offers.
We hope you’ll join us in what we hope will be a powerful and beneficial celebration of the true myth; the eucatastrophe of Easter.
If you’d like some reading for the Lent period and to accompany the new sermon series, here are a few recommendations: