There is the word catastrophe—which no one needs to have defined for them.
And there is the word eucatastrophe, and perhaps we need some help with that.
JRR Tolkien coined the term in 1944, meaning it as a sort of reversal of catastrophe, to describe the sudden, blessed turn in a story which pierces you with joy and brings you to tears.
He was referring to what he thought of as the highest function of fantasy storytelling when, from out of terror, there comes forth strength and life.
But we have to be taught to see this.
When a terrible, awful thing happens, what do you do?
We’re tempted, certainly, to look away from the terrible thing and to concentrate on the peace that we believe will come later.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression—that is the right thing to do.
The suffering or death of a Christian is not the end.
God is merciful.
You’ll either make it—or see Christ face to face.
It’s the waiting that’s the hardest part.
But it is meet, right, and salutary to look forward to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
And, mature faith can also recognize eucatastrophe.
What good comes out of the death of a Christian?
Well, we just said, the death of a Christian is not the end. God has promised eternal life to all who believe in Jesus, so we rejoice in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
But I mean—what good can come out of the death of a friend—right now?
This is a difficult lesson, but—once learned—you become, in a way, immovable. Steadfast. Long-suffering.
Hopeful. And not put to shame.
In Luke chapter thirteen, Jesus uses two catastrophes to teach this point.
First, “There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners that all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’” (Luke 13:1-3).
What good can come out of the death of a Christian?
Certainly you know someone who closed his eyes, and ears, and heart to God only to be woken up violently by the sudden death or disaster of a close friend.
We don’t pray for people to die.
We don’t ask for bad things to happen to people.
But if, in the midst of catastrophe, the fear of God finds you—you can rejoice in God’s patience with you.
The second example in Luke chapter thirteen makes the same point: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5).
That section of Luke 13 is no one’s confirmation verse, I’m sure. No one has a bumper sticker with “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Those are catastrophic words—we don’t choose them.
But these are catastrophic times.
The End Times. The Last Days.
And Jesus is coming soon. So perhaps we should.
We might be tempted to look past these days and all the terrible, awful things experience teaches.
We may want to look to the peace that is to come.
That’s right thing to do, but that’s not all there is to do.
We may not want to look at the crucifixion, for example. Or hear the full account of the crucifixion read during church.
Maybe it takes too long.
Or maybe it seems like all bad news.
It may seem silly to use this as a litmus test the way I do, but no one’s confirmation verse comes from the account of the crucifixion, and no one has a bumper sticker that quotes today’s Gospel lesson.
We don’t choose these words or dwell in catastrophe.
My whole point is—perhaps we should dwell for a moment in what we can call eucatastrophe.
“When [Jesus] was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer” (Matthew 27:12).
What good can come out of false accusations and lies?
Here, even Jesus’ silence fulfills the word of God.
Thus says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
God is not a liar. The Word of God is fulfilled.
And if He’s not a liar here, he’s not a liar anywhere. Believe Him when He says He loves you, even when the terrible and awful days are among us.
And “when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning [over Barabbas], he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified” (Matthew 27:24-26).
What good can come out of such evil?
Consider the reversals at hand.
See this as the eucatastrophe that it is.
It is impossible for us to hear that Pilate uses water to declare himself free of the blood of Christ and not also consider how God uses water to declare us free because of the blood of Christ.
Pilate’s baptism is a political one, but God saves sinners.
And then—what do the Jews say?
“His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25).
Their words are a mocking betrayal of the God who became flesh and purchased us with His own blood.
But what is, for them, sarcasm is, for us, the good and godly refrain of the one true faith:
“His blood be on us and on our children.”
“Abel’s blood for vengeance / Pleaded to the skies; / But the blood of Jesus / For our pardon cries” (LSB 433:4).
“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:51-53).
The curtain tore in two, God rending His own garment at the death of His Son.
What good can come out of such sacrifice?
The wrath of God is appeased.
The debt is paid.
You have standing with God, now and forever, because of the sacrifice made on your behalf.
The scales are tipped forever in your favor, because God did not withhold His Son, His only Son, from you.
And the dead are raised because death no longer has dominion.
“When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54).
For all time let the example and confession of the centurion remain with us.
The curtain tore in two, and the earth shook.
The rocks were split, and the tombs opened.
Terror and catastrophe were all around, but he abandoned not his post—or the Lord Jesus.
Rather, he saw and confessed the eucatastrophe of it all:
“Truly this was the Son of God!”
May each one of us do the same every day this week and whenever our turn comes.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Palm Sunday, 2021
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt