5th Sunday of Easter (Year C - LCMS Revised Readings)
Saturday, May 8, and Sunday, May 9, 2004
“Now is your time of grief,” Jesus says. “You will weep and mourn;” “you will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” Your grief will turn to joy.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, made famous again by the recent movies, follows a Hobbit named Frodo and his band of faithful friends who experience much grief, but their grief turns to joy. They set out to destroy a ring made by the evil Sauron. The ring gives power, but it is an evil power and so it must be destroyed. Frodo and his constant companion, Sam, must travel into the heart of Sauron’s kingdom to Mount Doom and throw the ring into the fires in the mountain.
Towards the end of the third book, The Return of the King, Frodo and Sam make it to Mount Doom, but when Frodo is about to destroy the ring by throwing it into the fire, he begins to waver. The ring has tremendous power, power to tempt, and Frodo looses heart and decides he can’t destroy the ring.
At that same time, Gollum, a creature that has helped Frodo and Sam, appears and knocks Sam unconscious. Gollum has helped our heroes, but Gollum has a selfish motive: he wants the ring. Sam wakes up in time to see “a strange and terrible thing,” the ensuing struggle between Frodo and Gollum at the edge of he abyss in Mount Doom. Tolkien writes:
“The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire.
“‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone” (240).
Sam then carried Frodo out of the cavern in Mount Doom. It is in Sam’s reaction that we see the way one event can pull your heart in two different directions—grief and joy. Tolkien continues,
“‘Master!’ cried Sam, and fell upon his knees. In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden [of the ring] was gone. His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free. And then Sam caught sight of [Frodo’s] maimed and bleeding hand.
“‘Your poor hand!” [Sam] said. ‘And I have nothing to bind it with, or comfort it. I would have spared [Gollum] a whole hand of mine rather. But he’s gone now beyond recall, gone for ever’” (241).
Sam’s heart can barely keep up with the emotions he’s feeling on that day. On the one hand, the terrible ring has been destroyed, and with it, the power of the evil Sauron, the evil that had long lurked over the land. So Sam is filled with great joy, joy beyond imagination. On the other, Frodo’s hand is bleeding, and there’s no help around for miles. The world is crumbling around them, because they’re in the heart of Sauron’s kingdom. So Sam is filled with grief and sorrow.
There is sadness and tragedy in this event, but through this event, a great joy has come. Tolkien describes this as “eucatastrophe,” the word you have on the sermon sheet on the back page of your bulletins. “Eu,” e-u, is a prefix that means “good.” You have there Tolkien’s description of what eucatastrophe means: “The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly [the joy] of the good catastrophe, the sudden “joyous” turn” (85-86).
Surely there is catastrophe in that great scene from The Lord of the Rings: Frodo doesn’t want to destroy the evil ring, Gollum attacks Sam, Gollum fights with Frodo and bites off a finger to get the ring, and now Frodo is worn out and bleeding and miles from any help.
Yet, out of that catastrophe, the ring is destroyed, the power of the evil lord is destroyed, and that’s why Sam and Frodo experience such great joy there on the side of a crumbling mountain in a fallen kingdom. It is a sudden joyous turn to rather tragic events.
Eu + Catastrophe = Eucatastrophe
That brings us quickly back to the words of Jesus, “You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” Jesus is talking to His disciples the night He is betrayed, the night before He is crucified, and He knows that the next events will tear apart the hearts of His followers, His friends. “You will weep and mourn,” He tells them, but they can’t understand yet just what He means. They can’t see what great pain they will endure when they know that their Lord has been killed on the cross.
But Jesus also knows that their grief will turn to joy, there will be a sudden joyous turn. In the upcoming tragic events, evil will be destroyed, sin will be overcome, and God’s people will be free. Surely, the death of Christ is a eucatastrophe, the greatest example of this word that Tolkien made up to describe that joy that comes through pain and sorrow.
Jesus, of course, doesn’t use a fairy tale to explain the sudden joyous turn; he uses the birth of a child as a metaphor. I feel a little funny trying to make that connection—the pain of birth being overcome by the joy of a new life. As a guy can I really say, “Yeah, you just forget about all of that pain of childbirth once the baby is here”? I wasn’t sure if you’d believe me when I said that, so I asked a mom.
She said, “It hurts.” That’s probably an understatement. Childbirth hurts, but then yeah, she said, you tend to forget all of that pain, you remember the great joy. This mom talked about when she remembers giving birth she remembers more of the joy than the pain. The joy overshadows the pain and anguish.
So indeed at birth, there’s that sudden joyous turn, that eucatastrophe. Yes, there’s pain and anguish and blood and difficulty, but then there’s new life and joy and wonder and beauty. Jesus is making this connection to help His disciples. He knows the disciples are about to experience great pain, great sorrow, but Jesus points them to the ultimate hope. He is telling them that the story has a happy ending; there’s consolation at the end. There is grief now, but soon there will be a joy that no one will be able to take away or destroy or steal.
But it hurts to wait for salvation; it hurts to wait for the joy that will never be taken away. It hurts to wait in labor for a child to be born. It hurt Frodo to carry that ring and struggle and have his finger bitten off, waiting for the ring to be destroyed. It hurts to go through this life, days of tragedy and sorrow, days of not understanding why terrible things happen to us, days of having trouble getting up in the morning to face another day; it hurts to go through this life, waiting for the joy of eternal life.
There’s a Scottish fairy tale called, “The Black Bull of Norroway.” Three daughters of a widow all are waiting for husbands. The youngest, Peggy Ann, doesn’t expect some rich prince to marry her; she says she’d just be happy with the Black Bull of Norroway. So then the wise woman tells Peggy Ann that her husband has come, and it is indeed the Black Bull of Norroway.
Peggy Ann rides around on the back of this great bull, which at first terrified her, but then she learned how gentle and caring this bull was. She began to love the bull, and when the bull got a thorn in his foot, she found the thorn and removed it. Instantly, the bull became a handsome young man—a duke who had been made into a bull by a wicked witch, a duke freed from the spell by Peggy Ann’s loving action.
Surely after all of that, Peggy Ann would be happy with her duke, but then while traveling, they got separated, unable to find each other. So Peggy Ann worked for a blacksmith who promised to help her get over the mountain to find the duke if she first worked for the blacksmith for seven years.
When Peggy Ann finally got over the mountain, she found that the Duke had promised to marry the wicked witch’s daughter. She went to him three times while he slept with a song of sadness, a song about how much it hurt to wait for him. She sang, “Seven long years I worked for thee/Won’t you please wake and speak to me?” The third time the Duke did wake up and took Peggy Ann into his arms. They were married and lived happily ever after.
Just when it seems that Peggy Ann will forever suffer from these catastrophes, these tragedies, then there is a sudden joyous turn—the Duke wakes up, the Duke marries her. Peggy Ann got a bull instead of a husband, found a handsome Duke and then lost him, worked for seven hard years to get over the mountain, found the Duke again but he slept through her song. Yet, in the end, these are eucatastrophes, good comes out of the catastrophes in her life.
It hurts to wait for the joy that will never be taken away. It hurt Peggy Ann to wait for her Duke; it hurt to go through so much while hoping for marriage and living happily ever after. It hurts to wait for the joy that will never be taken away in Christ. It hurts to know about God’s love but not always see it. It hurts to have the hope of eternal life but then see other people not have that same hope. It hurts to know that Christ will give us a new life, a life of peace and joy yet we still struggle in this life of fear and sadness.
Yet, the cross is a eucatastrophe—a tragedy of grandest proportions, the Son of God killed by His own Creation, yet also the hope of eternal life for all who believe. Our lives as Christians are eucatastrophes—living in this world separated from our loving Creator and Father, our Savior, yet knowing that when the pains of this life are over, when we have gone through the tragedy of Mount Doom, when we have worked seven years and sang the song each night, then the waiting is over, God will take us to be with Him, to be where the joy is complete.
I love this term, eucatastrophe, that Tolkien made up to describe the sudden joyous turn. I love this term for describing our lives here on Earth, because while it points us to the hope that we have in Jesus, while it clearly is a way of talking about the incredible salvation that we have through the cross, it is a term that still admits that this life is full of tragedies, sorrow, pain, death, and catastrophes.
A lot of times we want to say that God has a plan, that God meant for something difficult to happen to help us learn something, that God will bring good out of a bad situation. That’s all sort of true, but we really run the risk of trying to deny how bad things are. It is a tragedy to lose a loved one. It is a catastrophe when a storm or fire destroys your house. It is painful when we’re suffering with a physical injury or struggling with emotional difficulties. So I look at our lives in Christ, our lives that have the hope and joy of eternal life, but lives that are still filled with terror and pain and fear, I look at our lives and see how they are filled with eucatastrophes.
The pain is real. The tragedy and travesty of the cross is real. While good will come out of it, it is still a catastrophe. Jesus doesn’t say that mothers don’t experience pain and anguish in childbirth; Jesus doesn’t deny that. We should honor our mothers this day for what they went through in order to give us life. What Jesus does say is that that pain and anguish is overshadowed by the joy of the new life, the new baby.
As Christians, we don’t deny that we suffer and struggle in this life. What we do say is that the pain and anguish will be overshadowed by the joy found in the new life, the salvation, the eternal life given to us by Jesus Christ.
The joy is greater than any happy ending of a fairy tale. Tolkien doesn’t use fairy tales to say that Jesus is just another fairy tale. Tolkien uses fairy tales to say how Jesus outshines them all, outshines any tale we might make up. He says the Gospel of Christ is a fairy story that has entered history. We have all of these imagined stories where after all the bad things that happen, the people go off into the sunset, hand in hand, living happily ever after. Those are the stories of our imagination, and Tolkien says that in Christ, that kind of story entered into history, into reality, into our lives. Through Christ, we have the actual opportunity to live happily ever after with our God.
I would say that we wouldn’t know how to make up a good fairy story, a sudden joyous turn, we wouldn’t know what eucatastrophe was without knowing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the birth, death, and resurrection of our Lord. I don’t think anyone could imagine something as incredible as a sudden joyous turn if we hadn’t learned that from God Himself—God who decided to set aside His judgment on sin and promised to save His people, God who took the tragedy of our sinfulness and promised to transform our hearts, work His forgiveness, and save us from death. I don’t think anyone could imagine something like that, and all of our fairy tales and stories are just attempts at trying to have something that amazing, that incredible, that hopeful.
There is no greater story, no greater fairy tale than the events of history when God sent His Son to die for you. Yes, you now wait through difficult, trying days, through days which make you face sickness and injury and poverty and crime and fear. Yes, it hurts to wait in this place.
But Jesus promises that that hurt is a eucatastrophe. There is a sudden joyous turn found in Jesus. Sin is forgiven. Pain is removed. Fear finds peace. Sorrow finds comfort. Yes, you now wait in a life that might at times seem like the pain of childbirth, the terror of Mount Doom, the nights of singing and not having your true love hear your voice. Yes, you now wait, but Jesus promises that your grief will turn to joy. You will see Jesus, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. You will live happily ever after.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, New York: Ballantine, 1993, 1994.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, New York: Ballantine, 1966.
Charlotte Huck, The Black Bull of Norroway, Singapore: Greenwillow Books, 2001.