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The Incarnation: God’s Great Eucatastrophe

By Neal Michell

People throng to Christmas Eve services, but few attend Christmas Day services. Somehow, the simplicity of Christmas Day services allows the truth of the Incarnation to touch our hearts in a special way as we encounter deep truth on this holy day.

I love to attend Christmas Day services. I have loved them almost all of my adult life, both as a priest and as one who attends with no liturgical duties.

Few people attend Christmas Day services — usually a few retired folk and, in my imagination, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit.

But the sparse attendance never discourages me from the joy of that day. In fact, the sparse attendance actually enhances my enjoyment, partly because of having attended Christmas Eve services with all the carols and (usually) incense and crowded naves.

Christmas Day services are a contrast to all the pomp and circumstance of Christmas Eve, usually without singing (alas), usually simply said, and with a thimble full of worshipers. I suppose it is the simplicity of the services — a sense of “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19) kind of simplicity — that touches me so.

I love those simple services because all “the hopes and fears” of all our individual years are met in Jesus in a poignant way expressed through the simplicity of Christmas Day services. And like those shepherds that first Christmas night, we want a glimpse of the Christ child in a simple and unadorned way that touches us in the deep recesses of our hearts that bring us the assurance that, as Dame Julian of Norwich wrote over eight centuries ago, “all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Yes, that is the promise of this babe lying in that manger, the big picture: all shall be well.

J.R.R. Tolkien made up a word that captures the promise of this day for us: “eucatastrophe.” “Eu” is the Greek prefix for “good,” and “catastrophe’” of course, makes us think “disaster,” but in its etymological sense, it refers to a turning about, an upending. For Tolkien, a eucatastrophe is a good catastrophe. When the enemy seems to have won, when all seems to be lost, suddenly the tide turns, totally unexpected.

This eucatastrophe occurs in The Hobbit when the eagles show up at the Battle of the Five Armies. Our heart leaps to read, “The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!” In The Lord of the Rings, though victory seems assured for Sauron, when Gollum attacks Frodo at the cracks of Mount Doom. trying to wrest the ring from him, and Gollum falls in himself, the One Ring is destroyed forever as it falls into the crack with Gollum. We then come to recognize that Frodo’s quest was not doomed to fail after all, but doomed to succeed.

Tolkien applies his concept of eucatastrophe to his Christian faith when he writes: “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history,” and “the Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.”[1]

It is a joy, Tolkien explains, because in that turn of events, we gain a glimpse of truth. And that is Truth with a capital-T Truth because it shows us “how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.”

J.K. Rowling seems to have Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe in mind when, in the Harry Potter series, Severus Snape turns out to be a double agent, secretly working against Voldemort to preserve Harry’s life out of his love for Harry’s mother, Lily, and Harry ends up being resurrected and saving Hogwarts — and even the whole wizarding world — from Voldemort. And where does Harry go in that in-between place between his death and returning to life? King’s Cross Station.

But for Tolkien, this concept of eucatastrophe is not simply a literary artifice. Tolkien is much more explicit about the connection between eucatastrophe and our Christian faith when he writes: “The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairytale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘tur[n] … is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well … it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.”

That is why the celebration of Christmas is so powerful: because we are drawn to this celebration of God’s Great Euctatastrophe in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. We are drawn because we are reminded that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet” (“This is my Father’s World”). We are drawn because God is drawing us to himself.

So, as you read this essay, let us gaze with our mind’s eye upon the baby born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. And, as we gaze on the baby, gaze upon the deepest of all Truth — from your heart to God’s heart — recall the Truth echoed in the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by;
yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray,
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel!

[1] Passages regarding eucatastrophe by J.R.R. Tolkien may be found in J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, “On Fairy-Stories,” Houghton and Mifflin, 1964. pp. 71-2.


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