Mere Christianity

The Great Eucatastrophe: Good Friday and Notre-Dame

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.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (free stock photo from http://www.pixabay.com)

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

8 thoughts on “The Great Eucatastrophe: Good Friday and Notre-Dame”

  1. Fantastic post. That quote from Tolkien is new to me and I love it; it explains what I’ve felt and have a hard time putting into words.

    And yes, I cried when Notre Dame burned…devastating in itself, it seems like a visual depiction of what is going on in society. At the same time, I’m glad the whole world got to see the photo of the cross. Because no matter what, Christ is victorious.

    Thanks for sharing, and have a lovely weekend!

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    1. Thank you so much for commenting! I’m so glad you were blessed by the quote from Tolkien. The term “eucatastrophe” is one that I’ve often heard associated with him, and I knew what he meant by it…but I, too, had never read the quote in full until I started thinking about what I wanted to say in relation to Good Friday/Notre Dame. He definitely had such a gift for tying our innate love of “Fairy Story” to our need for a Savior!

      I felt the same way about Notre Dame: it’s so symbolic anyway, but to see it on fire like that and to watch the spire collapse…it was such a heavy, emotional thing. But then all those incredible reports came out of Paris and they filled me with such hope and joy! I even heard this morning that the bee hives on the stone roof survived the fire. They said the bees would be a bit gorged with honey and drowsy from all the smoke, haha–but they’re okay. What a mercy of God!

      I hope you have a blessed weekend as well! Thank you again for commenting 🙂

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  2. Absolutely beautiful! And it’s true: this is why we love stories as human beings…because we have been put into the greatest story with the greatest “eucatastrophe!” I love that word! And yes, Easter Sunday is only as beautiful as the amount of sadness we feel on Friday and Saturday. May God richly bless your Easter! Great post! And praise God for keeping Notre Dame somewhat safe…

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    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I attended my first Good Friday service at my grandparents’ church yesterday, and I was so moved by the solemnity and prayerfulness of it. At the end of the service they draped the cross in black, and everyone filed out very quietly. It was so meaningful to me after everything I’ve been learning and thinking about over the past seven months…and it made me really look forward to tomorrow’s celebrations.

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  3. I absolutely love that passage from Tolkien, as well as his definition of “eucatastrophe”, and how it ties together our “fairy stories” and the deep desire for Truth born into every human being. And the way you connected that to the burning of the Notre-Dame!! This was a fantastic blog and a great reminder of what these next few days mean to Christians throughout history and around the globe.
    I’m about to send a link to this to my friend who’s also a huge Tolkien fan, I think it will be a blessing to her as we look forward to Easter.
    Thank you for taking the time to write this and share it with all of us!! 😊

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    1. I know it’s taken me two days to get back to you on this, but I just wanted you to know how much your comment blessed me! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post–besides which, it is WONDERFUL to talk to other young Christians who are rejoicing in the Great Eucatastrophe. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, and I hope you had a blessed Easter yesterday!

      Liked by 1 person

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