J.R.R. Tolkien spoke about the need in stories for a “eucatastrophe” (eu means “happy” or “good” in Greek). A eucatastrophe is, then, a “good” catastrophe–the sudden eruption of triumph and joy into a dark and near-tragedy. In this, more than perhaps anything else, can he be seen as a quintessentially Christian writer.
One of the best descriptions of the primordial eucatastrophe is orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s:
Nietzsche, the quixotic champion of the old standards, thought jesting Pilate’s “What is truth?” to be the only moment of actual nobility in the New Testament, the wry taunt of an acerbic ironist unimpressed by the pathetic fantasies of a deranged peasant. But one need not share Nietzsche’s sympathies to take his point; one can certainly see what is at stake when Christ, scourged and mocked, is brought before Pilate a second time: the latter’s “Whence art thou?” has about it something of a demand for a pedigree, which might at least lend some credibility to the claims Christ makes for himself; for want of which, Pilate can do little other than pronounce his truth: “I have power to crucify thee” (which, to be fair, would under most circumstances be an incontrovertible argument).
It is worth asking ourselves what this tableau, viewed from the vantage of pagan antiquity, would have meant. A man of noble birth, representing the power of Rome, endowed with authority over life and death, confronted by a barbarous colonial of no name or estate, a slave of the empire, beaten, robed in purple, crowned with thorns, insanely invoking an otherworldly kingdom and some esoteric truth, unaware of either his absurdity or his judge’s eminence. Who could have doubted where, between these two, the truth of things was to be found? But the Gospel is written in the light of the resurrection, which reverses the meaning of this scene entirely. If God’s truth is in fact to be found where Christ stands, the mockery visited on him redounds instead upon the emperor, all of whose regal finery, when set beside the majesty of the servile shape in which God reveals Himself, shows itself to be just so many rags and briars.
This slave is the Father’s eternal Word, whom God has vindicated, and so ten thousand immemorial certainties are unveiled as lies: the first become last, the mighty are put down from their seats and the lowly exalted, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent empty away. Nietzsche was quite right to be appalled.
- From “Christ and Nothing,” First Things 136 (October 2003): 47-57.
As Hart goes on to demonstrate, however, the eucatastrophe leaves us–the moderns who live post-Easter–with a more limited set of choices than the past:
With Christ came judgment into the world, a light of discrimination from which there is neither retreat nor sanctuary. And this means that, as a quite concrete historical condition, the only choice that remains for the children of post-Christian culture is not whom to serve, but whether to serve Him whom Christ has revealed or to serve nothing — the nothing. No third way lies open for us now, because — as all of us now know, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not — all things have been made subject to Him, all the thrones and dominions of the high places have been put beneath His feet, until the very end of the world, and — simply said — there is no other god.
Catastrophe we will have. Whether it is happy or not rests upon our individual choices. For, Christ is risen indeed.