Advent Words 5: “Eucatastrophe”

The great 20th century writer JRR Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame) coined a literary term that I think is absolutely brilliant: “eucatastrophe”.  Eucatastrophe refers to a sudden, dramatic turn of events, consistent with the overall storyline, at the end of a tale that turn the plot in the protagonist’s favor.  This differs from another classic literary convention, the deus ex machina, in which something unexpected and foreign to the storyline suddenly emerges, turning the plot in the protagonists favor.  One emerges from within and is consistent.  Another is, in a way, literary laziness.

Tolkien was fond of saying that the Incarnation was the “eucatastrophe” of world history.  That is, things seemed to be going along one way, and then all of a sudden, in a way that no one expected, God broke in… and everything turned around.  This is consistent with the Jewish account of world history because, according to their poems, prophecies, narratives, and ancestral traditions, their God was active and involved (though sometimes mysteriously, conspicuously quiet), ever bent on redemption and rescue, and strangely, opaquely interested in getting inside his story somehow.

By the time of the 1st century, this beleaguered people, heirs of a rich tradition, a glorious past, and a hopeful future, must have felt like the “trail” of their story had gone cold.  That perhaps Yahweh had lost the scent.  And then… IT happened.  Advent.  God broke in.  In a way that no one expected, but that likewise changed everything.  Eucatastrophe.

Of course, THE Advent is really the en-fleshment of what is the general character of this God…  that is, he is the God of eucatastrophes.  That just when we thought the story had run out of steam, he finds new ways to burst in and infuse the plot with new life and hopefulness.  THE Advent is consistent with the tale the prophets and storytellers of old had been telling because Advent is this God’s calling card.

The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, at the beginning of his massive Theology of the Old Testament, stated that any theology that claims to draw its cues from the Old Testament must begin not with abstract metaphysical speculations about Yahweh (Is He the ultimate ground of being?  The first cause?  The unmoved mover?), but rather with the basic insight that Yahweh was first known by Israel in his doings…  God DOES.  For Israel.  Israel is the “direct object” of the “verbs” of which Yahweh is the “subject”.  God acts upon Israel for her good.  That is how she “knows” God at all.  Not by philosophical musings.  But by remembrance.  “I am the Lord… who brought you up out of Egypt.”

Accordingly, Brueggemann claims, the “first word” of Israel’s life, and consequently Old Testament theology as a whole, is a simple Hebrew word: todah – “thanksgiving”.  He writes:

I propose as a beginning point that Israel’s testimony, in which is offers its version of reality (and therefore of God), is a sentence offered as a todah.  It is a statement of gratitude and thanksgiving, offered in a confessional mode, whereby Israel expresses joy, wonder, and gratitude for a gift given or an action performed, a gift or an action that has decisively changed Israel’s circumstances.

Old Testament theology begins, therefore, with thanksgivings for the fact that Yahweh has shown himself (concretely, locally, specifically, severally) to be the Lord of the Eucatastrophe.  The Advent King.  (Now I’m getting excited.)

In the 6th century BC, a group of Jews found themselves in a place where their story had run out of steam.  During that time, one of their prophets, a priest named Ezekiel, saw this vision:

1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’” (Ez 37:1-14)

God of the Eucatastrophe.  Advent, accordingly, is our promise that everything in our lives that has gone stale and cold is a candidate for a fresh wind from God…

Give thanks to the Advent King : )

2 thoughts on “Advent Words 5: “Eucatastrophe”

  1. Nice fresh insight into this time of. Year. A time where the celebration often is without reason. You’re a gifted communicator, I am sure we will have some great chats in the future

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