My Good Friday came early this year. A whole week before the remembrance of Christ’s death on the calendar, I found myself in deep, dark despair. For a while I had enjoyed a period of relative health and improving symptoms. Hope for healing had begun to grow. But then symptoms returned; and things that were supposed to be helping were not, and things that had previously been helping no longer were. I felt my hope snatched away, and I began to despair.
I struggled with how to hold onto hope in the midst of so much grief and loss. I thought of the disciples in the upper room after Jesus’s death, and I understood something of what they must have felt. To dare to hope for something better, and then to have it snatched away. To know the promises of God, to feel like you were on the verge of seeing them fulfilled, and then to have the ground shift beneath you and suddenly you can’t see how any of those promises could be true at all. Friends, this is the grief of Good Friday.
In the midst of that darkness and despair, God reached out to me. I am continually surprised at where He meets me. It is never where I expect to find Him. This time, I was in bed reading “The Lord of the Rings”. There is a council discussing The Ring and it is decided that it must be taken into the dark land and destroyed. All agree that this is a hopeless journey, a choice between “folly or despair”. Then that great theologian, Gandalf, grips my heart with his words. “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” Obviously, I do not see the end of this story. I only see today. So if not despair, then…..what?
I recalled a different conversation from “The Lord of the Rings”, later in the book, and went searching for it. Frodo and his faithful companion, Sam, are in a most hopeless situation and Frodo begins to despair.
Sam: It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.
That there is some good in the world. That even in the midst of my suffering, there are moments of Eucharisteo joy. That even while I’m deeply entrenched in my humanity, God joins me there. That even though I may sow in tears, I will reap with songs of joy (Psalm 126:5) And these are worth fighting for.
Caught in the daily, relentless humanity of my own story, it is so easy to lose sight of The Story, of His Story. My life is not just what I see. Like Job who suffered immense loss and never received an answer to why it happened, I trust that my sufferings serve a greater purpose. And that He knows the purpose. When I doubt the goodness of what I’m given, I trust the goodness of the giver.
And (can you feel the hope growing?) He does not send me on that dark journey alone. He comes with me. He is not only my merciful Savior, but also my devoted servant. He is the Hound of Heaven. He is my Samwise Gamgee. He follows me into the darkest places, and when I can go no further, He carries me the rest of the way.
“I can’t carry [the ring] for you, but I can carry you,” Sam declares to Frodo when he can go no farther.
Tolkein, in his letters, often spoke of “eucatastrophe” in his stories (“eu” meaning good; “catastrophe” meaning a path-altering event). He explains it better than I ever could:
“I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it 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. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (….) that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. 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.”
Eucatastrophe kindles hope in the midst of hopelessness. It lifts my head in the midst of despair. It shines Truth into the deepest darkness. But this eucatastrophe does not erase the pain of humanity. The eucatastrophe of Easter did not negate the suffering of Good Friday. There is a delicate tension between our daily eucharisteo (finding joy in the midst of pain) and our ultimate eucatastrophe (the redemption of our pain). It is the tension of the already and the not yet. My hope of health and healing is still there. It always will be as long as I am living in humanity. But it has now been coupled to this new hope of eucatastrophe. The hope for eucatastrophe endures, even when the hope for healing fails.
This eucatastrophe is not just a hope, it is The Hope. It’s the hope to which I now cling. The hope that even if my own story does not end well, even if I do not regain health and wellness this side of heaven, I can trust that The Story does end well. Where other hopes may fail, this is the hope that does not disappoint (Romans 5:5). Because Easter morning always follows Good Friday.