“Eucastrophe” is a word I just recently came across. It is new to me. The word was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The word is derived from the Greek words for joy and disaster which are then joined together.
Tolkien used the word to describe stories where the seeming defeat of a good protagonist is suddenly and unexpectedly turned into victory. The forbearance of good wins the struggle even though it seemed lost. The reader, he goes on to explain, experiences a moment where sorrow and joy are met suddenly, lifting the person to a whole new experience of life.
This Easter Sunday we celebrate the greatest “eucastrophe.” For the past three days we have walked with Jesus through those final moments of his life on earth. On Thursday evening, we gathered with him around the altar, albeit this year through a screen of some sort.
We heard him say: “Take this all of you and eat, this is my body which will be given up for you.” We listened as we heard him wash the feet of the disciples after which he says: “As I have washed your feet so you must wash each others feet.” We walked with him to the garden and prayed with him.
Friday afternoon we walked with him on the way to Calvary. We witnessed his betrayal, arrest, the denial, the scourging and crowning. We remembered the heart-wrenching encounter with his mother on his way to execution. We watch, with her, as he dies on the cross and is placed in the tomb. And we wait.
Now three days later we walk with the disciples to the tomb only to find it empty. We begin to see a glimmer of impossible hope when Mary finds the stone rolled back. The hope is magnified when the beloved disciple outruns Peter to arrive at the tomb first. As they go and find no body we share the experience of faith with John; we see and believe. Deep grief is now comingled with joy and we are raised with Jesus to new life.
Today we celebrate Easter and join in the acclaim: “The Lord is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!” The proclamation expresses the great joy we feel even in the midst of the deepest sadness. Despair is vanquished. Evil is defeated. The power of death is broken. When the Risen Jesus appears to the disciples, two greetings predominate the encounters: “Do not be afraid” and “Peace be with you.”
Fear is naturally expected when the disciples encounter Jesus. He was dead. He suffered a horrendous death which no person could survive. He was clearly dead for three days. “How could he be standing here in front of us?” they might instinctively think. Yet he is here, he is alive, he has risen. So he greets them, expunges fear and once again invites faith.
The greeting also recalls the holy fear we hear about in Scripture that one experiences when encountering the divine. How can one come so close to God and live? In this encounter, the distance between God and man is bridged beyond imagination. He is here and so are we.
The second greeting, “Peace be with you,” harkens to an experience, in the depth of our being, where that sorrow and joy have met. The realities of cross and resurrection are now one.
The man who at his birth was called Emmanuel, “God is with us,” now establishes his kingdom, the kingdom of peace. It is a peace that pervades all life’s “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties” (Gaudium et Spes, 1). Through the power of his cross and resurrection, he freely gives the gift of peace. He now invites us to receive it with an open heart.
There is a saying from the Second Vatican Council that Easter is to the year what Sunday is to the week. In one sense, the saying is a reminder that the paschal mystery, the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection, pervades life. The mystery is always present. Right now we may be experiencing this in a way we could never have imagined.
Our Lenten observance this year has been marked with sickness, death, closures, isolations, loss of work, fear for family, concern for friends and uncertainty — all can be described as darkness.
At the same time, as Pope Francis reminded us last week, we have seen great lights as people, communities and countries respond together in charity, service and care. It is in the midst of this situation where we are invited to recognize the paschal mystery.
Christ is present to us in the suffering. Christ is present to us in death. Christ is present to us in resurrection. Our experiences in life find new meaning in his passion, death and resurrection, and it is there that we find our peace.
Tolkien, when speaking on the word “eucastrophe,” several times associated it with the resurrection. In doing so he said this was the greatest “eucastrophe” for it is not just a story, it is history. It happened in real life, in real time, in a real place. The reality that we celebrate today now becomes present to us through memory.
When we enter the mystery we move to the depths of our being. It is in this inner sanctuary where we come to know and experience the profound realization that we are loved, so that even in the midst of intense sadness or sorrow, a peace pervades which carries with it, hope.
“The Lord is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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