April 4, 2021

Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities, VII: Eucatastrophe

Passage: John 20:1–18

According to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jesus baffled Mary Magdalene. “I don’t know how to love him,” she sings. But that isn’t really true, is it? She did know how to love him, maybe better than anyone else in the Gospels besides Mother Mary herself.

She was the last one there at the cross when he died, and the first one there at the empty tomb when he came back. She was there to watch the Empire inflict its malice, and she was there to watch God conjure God’s magic. She refuses to let him go; she loved him till the end and beyond.

Even when he came back, though, he still baffled her. She thought he was the gardener. It makes sense; gardeners dress like carpenters, all lumberjack shirts and sturdy jeans and serious work boots and bristling toolbelts, or their first-century equivalents. This is a stealthy, covert resurrection.

And then he speaks her name, just the single word: “Mary.” And she knows who he is: “Rabbi!” she responds. It is the greatest eucatastrophe in literature or in history.

Eucatastrophe is the newest of the odd words in our Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities: 1939. It might be the easiest to understand as well. Two Greek words, obviously: that common Greek suffix eu, or good, as in ‘eutopia’ —good place; or ‘eulogy’—good word; or ‘euthanasia’—good death.

And of course, catastrophe—a reversal, an overturning, a shock. Eucatastrophe: A good disaster. An oxymoron, no?  Maybe not.

We know catastrophe. We’re living a catastrophe. While I’m preaching this sermon, 50 people will die of Covid-19. We know catastrophe; we’re living it.

But we forget that catastrophe didn’t originally refer to natural disaster; catastrophe is really a literary term. It’s the crucial plot point of any story, a reversal, a shock, an overturning: when Moby Dick sinks the Pequod; when Valjean meets Javert on the barricades and lets him go; when Macbeth decides to kill King Duncan; when Othello smothers Desdemona: a reversal, a shock, an overturning.

Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term in 1939. He came up with it while he was listening to a sermon. Yes, it’s true; brilliant, eureka moments can happen even during a sermon.

In this sermon, the priest told the story of a young girl who was miraculously cured of tuberculosis at a healing spring in France. Mr. Tolkien says this story made him irrationally happy. The feeling this story conjured in him was like nothing else he’d ever experienced.  There wasn’t a single word in his sizable vocabulary big enough to capture it, so he made up his own new word. It was a eucatastrophe; a good reversal.[1]

During this time when we are assaulted all day long by the Derek Chauvin trial, Confederate flags beneath the Capitol Dome, Proud Boys, racial enmity everywhere and intensifying, Asian Americans stomped in the head and security guards turning the other way and locking the door (Security guards!)...during this time of racial discord, my mind drifted to a great eucatastrophe that occurred on Easter Sunday, 1939, same year Mr. Tolkien came up with his happy new word.

At Easter, 1939, Howard University had invited the stunning Black contralto Marian Anderson to sing in Washington. She was so famous in the United States and Europe that they needed a big hall to accommodate the crowds that would inevitably want to hear her sing.

Constitution Hall was, is, the largest concert venue in the District: capacity 3,700. Whites only, said the by-laws. Constitution Hall is governed by the Daughters of the American Revolution (Daughters of the Revolution indeed!) They said no.


Eleanor Roosevelt was a Daughter of the American Revolution. She resigned in protest. Her husband’s administration arranged for Ms. Anderson to sing at the feet of the Great Emancipator himself in his legendary Memorial; 75,000 people showed up. She sang:
My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From ev'ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!

What would have been a polite, pleasant concert for 3,000 white people in Constitution Hall turned into one of those historic turning points in racial progress, a eucatastrophe. The symbolic significance of the aural and visual panorama was unmistakable, even for the Daughters, or so let us hope—“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at Lincoln’s feet.  Easter Sunday, 1939.[2]

Dan Hales sent me a wonderful story about the Jews of Thessaloniki, the thriving port city in Greece. Maybe you saw it too floating around the Internet. In 1939—same year that Mr. Tolkien coined his new word, same year that Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial—in 1939, 50,000 Jews lived in Thessaloniki. So many of the dock workers in the port were Jewish that the port was closed on Saturday.

The Nazis invaded Greece in 1941, and by the end of the war, 48,000 of those 50,000 Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only a few survived, including Mois and Sara Bourla.

In 1961, Mois and Sara Bourla had a son they named Israel Abraham; great name for a Jewish baby. They called him Albert.

When Albert grew up, he studied veterinary medicine at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. He also earned a Ph.D. there, in the biotechnology of reproduction.

Then he went to work for the Pfizer Pharmaceutical Corporation. He moved to the United States in 2001 and moved quickly up the corporate ladder. He was once Head of Global Vaccines, then COO. In 2019, he became CEO at Pfizer.

So here’s a eucatastrophe for you. The son of holocaust survivors grows up to lead the push to create a vaccine which will save the lives of millions of Germans, many of them sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, of Nazis. Good thing the Nazi didn’t kill all those Thessalonican Jews. God has such a twisted sense of humor.

Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, has not been vaccinated yet. He says, “I’m 59 years old. It’s not my turn.”

On that first Easter morning, death began to die. This Easter good news is so necessary right now in a year when we have witnessed 550,000 more American deaths than expected. But maybe it’s necessary news at any point in history.

I wanted to preach this sermon just here this morning. Kenilworth Union has more stained-glass windows than any church I’ve ever served. I love them all. But these are my favorites, because of how they look and what they say.

You have heard me talk before about these three Kenilworth Union Sunday School graduates. Manierre Barlow Ware, for example–New Trier High School Class of 1913, University of Illinois, Class of 1917, enlistee in the U. S. Army immediately after graduation.

His division employing 37-millimeter guns was facing a German machine-gun nest when he was killed on October 12, 1918—exactly 30 days before the Armistice, 30 days from peace and home.

What would we do if we could not see the hope of resurrection shining through this vivid purple—the purple of Passion and the purple of Royalty—and through the irrepressible emerald of springtime emerging from the dead wintered earth?

It took J.R.R. Tolkien twelve years to write The Lord of the Rings. It’s a big book. Plus, he was teaching fulltime at Oxford. Tolkien started Lord of the Rings in 1937, about the same time he invented this new word eucatastrophe, and so of course he had to put a eucatastrophe into his story.

Do you remember near the end of The Return of the King when Frodo and his faithful sidekick Samwise Gamgee finally manage to dispose of the Ring and thereby destroy the dark kingdom of Mordor? They have been through hell and back. Almost literally. Mordor is hell. It has almost killed them. They look like they have been through their own crucifixions. They bear the stigmata of their own Golgotha. At the end, when Mordor has crumbled, Frodo looks around and says, “It’s gone. It’s done.” In other words, “It is finished.” Where have we heard those words before?

Well, as you know, Frodo and Samwise are miraculously rescued, and taken to Ithilien to recover, and when Samwise Gamgee finally wakes up, there is Gandalf smiling at his bedside. And Sam gasps and says “Gandalf! I thought you were dead. But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

Gandalf says, “A great shadow has departed.” Then Gandalf laughs, and the storyteller says that “the sound of the laughter was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as Sam listened the thought came to him that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known.”[3]

That Easter laughter. May it fall upon our ears like the echo of all the joys we have ever known.

[1]Paul Anthony Jones, The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times (London: Elliott & Thompson, 2020), pp. 67−68.

[2]Details on Easter Sunday, 1939, at the Lincoln Memorial come from Eric J. Sundquist, King’s Dream (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 142–143; and from Susan Stamberg, “Denied a Stage, She Sang for a Nation,” NPR, April 9, 2014, npr.org/2014/04/09/298760473/denied-a-stage-she-sang-for-a-nation

[3]J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, third volume of The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965, originally published 1955, pp. 987−988 in my one-volume edition.

*You may use these prayers for non-commercial purposes in any medium, provided you include a brief credit line with the author’s name (if applicable) and a link to the original post.