When I was in college, my friend Eric and I came up with a worship leader comedy routine. Eric would stand with his guitar. I’d pick up my Bible and turn to the page I had bookmarked so I could read the way worship leader’s sometimes read Bible passages between songs. Eric would tilt his chin upward, eyes closed, a pious smile on his face.
I would inhale and in one breath read:
Eric would nod and smile, and occasionally he’d interject with a yes Lord or an Amen as I continued to read, only slower now, pausing for emphasis:
“I will sweep away everything
from the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea—
and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”
“When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord,
“I will stretch out my hand against Judah
and against all who live in Jerusalem.
I will destroy every remnant of Baal worship in this place,
the very names of the idolatrous priests—
those who bow down on the roofs
to worship the starry host,
those who bow down and swear by the Lord
and who also swear by Molek,
those who turn back from following the Lord
and neither seek the Lord nor inquire of him.
Then I would close my Bible and bow my head in silence. After about 10 or 15 seconds Eric would launch into song, ” ♪ ♫ There is joy in the Lord, there is love in His Spirit, there is hope in the knowledge of Him . . .”
I don’t think we ever finished the song. The juxtaposition of one of the judgiest Bible passages (Zephaniah 1) with happy-clappy, contemporary worship made us laugh. We enjoyed the joke more anyone else did. Everyone thought we were irreverent.
The joke was better than Eric and I realized. The Joy of the Lord came as a happy surprise to those who only heard words of judgment and destruction. As goofy and impious as we were, we managed to touch on and demonstrate something of the joy that came with Jesus.
Christ’s Advent was the start of a great reversal. Though the world dwelt in darkness, full of wounded and dying people, living fragmented life, the promise of Christ opened up new possibilities: hope, shalom, wholeness, well-being, healing, deliverance, salvation. Though “weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy coined a word to describe this sort of reversal, eucatastrophe. In his essay, On Fairy Stories, he described a cataclysmic shift in a story where certain destruction is averted by a joyful sudden turn of events—the consolation of a happy ending:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
Anyone who has read the Lord of Rings knows these eucatastrophic turnarounds (think Gandalf’s return or the eagles). But of course, eucatastrophe is not just an element in fairy stories. We see it Romantic Comedies where the despised jerks (Mr. Darcy!) turn out, in the end, to be truly quite wonderful. Good jokes, too, have this kind of joyful surprise. The eucatastrophe is written into the fabric of reality:
[I]n the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite
So, the gospel of Jesus Christ is eucatastrophe! Tolkien called the “Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history (and the Resurrection of Christ the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation). Jesus’ return and the New Heaven and Earth will be the eucatastrophe for which all creation groans (Romans 8:22).
So here we are, the third week of Advent. The world is still dark and days short (in the Northern hemisphere). Suffering, struggle, and sorrow is what we know. Our only experience of peace is a tenuous armistice of mutually-assured-destruction. We await eucatastrophic turnaround. Though weeping may last through the night, Joy comes in the morning.