On This Friday We Call Good: Eucatastrophe and the Eucharist

From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

-Matthew 27:45

It is finished.

We listened as Christ’s final words were proclaimed from the altar. We adored His cross and kissed His wounds, following in the footsteps of Mary and the beloved disciple. And then, we received the Word made flesh in the Eucharist, “the one great thing to love on earth,” one last time.

Now, the sanctuary light is extinguished, the altar is bare, and the dim church is silent. The tabernacle is open, and empty. If “a stable once had some[one] inside it that was bigger than our whole world,” the absence of that dear friend leaves a hole just as large, and it seems like “all other lights [have gone] out,” that our “one companion is darkness” (Ps. 88:19). As another poet says, “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

Yet, even in this hour of remembering Christ’s passion, we “do not believe that any darkness will endure,” though the “shadow lies on [us] still.” Jesus tells us himself at the Last Supper that “you will weep and mourn… you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn. 16:20). This darkness is not the end of the story. Though we may be in anguish now, and remember how his apostles were then, we will see Him again, receive Him again, and our hearts will rejoice just as their hearts did. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien writes about this “sudden joyous turn” when all hope seems lost, which he calls a eucatastrophe. The opposite of a tragedy’s catastrophe, it is a “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence… of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies… universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Evangelium—the Gospel, the good news. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:1, 14). As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech—not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform… God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears… For here it is the real Lord of the world—the Living God—who goes into action.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

As Tolkien continues, he says, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” So too does Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, Jesus joyfully arrives in Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday, He gives us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, which “[feeds] the will and [gives us] the strength to endure.” On Good Friday, He gives us His mother, Our Lady, to be our mother and companion in darkness, before giving up His very life for us on the cross out of love.

Soon, His love will be told not only on the cross, but also in the empty tomb. His faithfulness will be known among the dead, as He breaks the very bonds of sin and death. And His wonders will be known, even in the dark. We need only to take courage and wait a little while longer—for the winter will pass, the Son will be unveiled in the breaking of the bread, and the light will leap forth as we sing with Easter joy.

Referenced
Eliot, Four Quartets
Lewis, The Last Battle
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, On Fairy-Stories, Letters
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 1

The Great Unknown

“Have no fear of moving into the unknown. Simply step out fearlessly knowing that I am with you, therefore no harm can befall you; all is very, very well. Do this in complete faith and confidence.”
-St. Pope John Paul II

March twenty-fifth may be the most important day in salvation history. It is traditionally regarded as “the day of creation, the day when God’s word decreed: ‘Let there be light’” (Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy). It is the day Adam and Eve fell, the day Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, the day the Israelites were led through the Red Sea, the day of Christ’s crucifixion—and the day of the Annunciation, which we celebrate today.

Our Lady’s fiat was foreshadowed from the very instant Adam and Eve were led out of the garden with the words, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel” (Genesis 3:15). Toil, thorns, and death may have lay ahead of them in the great unknown, but this “truly necessary sin of Adam” would be “destroyed completely by the Death of Christ,” and this “happy fault” would earn “so great, so glorious a Redeemer.” The road ahead may have been hidden, but the light at the end was not.

This moment was only the beginning of the story, for God’s promise would echo through the centuries in the hearts of people who “believed, hoping against hope” (Romans 4:18). Abraham stepped out in fearless obedience, leading his family away from home and into the unknown. Despite his age, he trusted that he would be a father someday—and when God nearly called him to sacrifice his beloved son, he did so willingly. Moses led his people through the Red Sea and out of Egypt, despite his doubts and weaknesses. Even with their many failings, the Israelites followed the Lord into the wilderness, where only he could guide them.

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel asked Our Lady to take the next step into the unknown for the sake of all creation. “Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise…This is what the whole earth waits for” (St. Bernard of Clairvaux). He did not say that she would not suffer, or that her heart would not be pierced. He did not list all the twists and turns in the road ahead and show her how God would provide for her family along the way. He did not even guarantee that St. Joseph would be with her when her child was born—or when he died upon the cross on another March 25, when God fulfilled his promise from the dawning of the world.

What did the angel tell her? He spoke the words that still echo in the hearts of those who hope against hope, even when “all other lights [have gone] out.” The words that give us the strength to move forward whenever we are called to take a shaking step into the unknown. The words that give us courage when we tell our Father that we are here to do his will, even if we can’t understand where the road will lead or why we must take it. Do not be afraid. Nothing is impossible with God. God is with us—the Word made flesh, Emmanuel!

For Reference
Fra. Angelico captured this in his paintings: “Even the setting in this Annunciation scene lends itself to the mystery of the Incarnation…for in the background there is a door opening onto the unknown” (Fr. Guy Bedouelle, In the Image of St. Dominic). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annunciation_of_Cortona#/media/File:Fra_Angelico_069.jpg

Awaiting the King’s Return

“Walk no more in the shadows, but awake!” said Aragorn. “You are weary. Rest a while, and take food, and be ready when I return.”

“I will, lord,” said Faramir. “For who would lie idle when the king has returned?”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, which commemorates Christ naming his apostle Peter as the rock upon which he would build his Church (Mt 16:13-19). This man was the first to fill the chair that would come to symbolize the office of the pope as the bishop of Rome. An actual, ancient chair known as the Cathedra Petri is enthroned in the back of St. Peter’s Basilica to this day. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “It is a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity” (Angelus, Feb. 19, 2012).

St. Peter was not perfect. He was not learned, like St. Paul, or even remembered as the beloved disciple, like St. John. From the start, he tells Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). When called out on the water, he doubts and begins to sink (Mt 14:30-31). Even after receiving his office, when he rebukes Jesus about the first prediction of his passion, Jesus does not hold back in his response, unleashing words more painful than the ones with which he addressed the scribes and Pharisees. He says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). Later, during that very passion, St. Peter would not be standing at the foot of the cross with Our Lady and St. John—he would deny Jesus not just once, but three times, and his denial would end in bitter tears.

However, St. Peter’s imperfections were not the whole story. We don’t remember saints for being perfect: we remember them for their humility, their perseverance, and their self-sacrificial love. This kind of life was the mission Christ called St. Peter to, knowing the shadows of his weaknesses, knowing that the tears of denial would come. After the resurrection, in John 21:15-19, St. Peter is asked three times to love Jesus and to care for his sheep, and he responds this time with humble love—a love which would later lead to his own crucifixion. He persevered to the end as a shepherd of his flock, as a faithful steward, pointing others to Christ as the best man rejoices in and points to the bridegroom, and received an “unfading crown of glory” (1 Pt 5:4).

Other stewards of the King have come and gone. Some have been saints while others have failed the flock they were sworn to protect. But, through any weariness, sickness, or sorrow, the Church stands firm. We rest in the knowledge that “he knows what he is about” (Bl. John Henry Newman), and that the “gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). We take food—his very Body and Blood, given up for us in his passion and shared with us each time we participate in the Mass—and receive courage for what lies ahead. We watch and we wait as a bride eagerly awaits her bridegroom, longing to see his face, knowing that our “hearts will rejoice, and no one will take [our] joy” (Jn 16:22). Our Lord is our King, our Shepherd—and there is nothing more we could want.

 

Listening

A Fr. Mike Schmitz homily about St. Peter: https://bulldogcatholic.org/02-10-19-disqualified-unfit/

A Companion in Darkness

“What? You too? I thought I was the only one!”
-C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

In the communion of saints, we are lucky to hear the stories of men and women who ran to Christ together, including Our Lady and St. Joseph, St. Catherine of Siena and Bl. Raymond of Capua, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so many others. These kindred spirits desired nothing less for their friends than for them to be led “further up and further in” to the very love of Christ. The anthem of their lives? “Draw me after you! Let us run!” (Song 1:4)

St. Francis de Sales, whose memorial we celebrate today, and St. Jane de Chantal were one such pair of friends who “were a gift of God to his Church, and their love was fruitful far beyond the mutual personal sanctification of the two involved” (Hinnebusch, 46). St. Francis met St. Jane after she had suffered the deaths of her husband and several children, mistreatment at the hands of her father-in-law, and years of longing for such a friend and guide. An immediate affection sprang up between the two, and he became her spiritual director. “They wanted nothing from their love but God’s glory and their own mutual holiness” (51), and their holy friendship led to St. Jane founding the Visitation sisters, which had been St. Francis’s cherished dream.

A friendship like this is a special kind of friendship. These friends are not drawn together just because of some mutual benefit, as classmates or colleagues may be. They don’t just share similar interests or enjoy spending time together, as many friends do (and should!). These true friends, at their deepest level, share a common commitment to the same ultimate good outside themselves, and that foundation will not crack. When both friends want what is best for the other and act accordingly, even though their own hearts could be “wrung and possibly broken,” we begin to see the love and joy of Christ. St. Francis had this kind of friendship with St. Jane, as “his heart…rejoice[d] in her heart as in itself” (51). He told her, “I am going to try to keep you ever exalted on the throne which God has given you in my heart, a throne based upon the cross” (51).

When a friend like this enters your life, even for a little while, give thanks and praise to God for the gift of their life, “praying always with joy” (Phil. 1:4) in your every prayer for them. These friends, ones to whom we can entrust our hearts, are unmerited gifts from God. How can our souls not proclaim the greatness of the Lord? As Fr. Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., writes, “I am especially blessed if God gives me a very close friendship with some specific person who is filled with the grace of God and divine love, and who has received a special faith, hope, and love for me” (53). Remain in his love always, “encourage one another” (1 Th. 5:11) as you encounter the joys and sorrows of life, let your friendship bear fruit, and evermore point your friend “further up and further in” to the heart of Christ, the source and summit of your joy, and the only ultimate good which will fully satisfy your hearts.

If you are longing for a friend like this, just as St. Jane was while waiting for St. Francis, or if you are reeling from being separated from such a friend, as St. Jane was after St. Francis entered eternal life, know that you are not alone. Among the “great crowd of witnesses” in the communion of saints, you have hidden friends loving you and praying for you—and none intercede for you as ardently as Our Lady does. She whose own heart was pierced by a sword of sorrow will lead you deeper into the thorn-crowned heart of her son, Jesus, who is your greatest friend.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13), and he already has. Christ has chosen you as his friend, delights in you, and will never leave you. He longs for us to love as he does so we may be filled with his joy, even if the road is sowed with tears and strewn with briars. Lean into the love of the cross, and know that every tear has power when united to his passion. Be patient, for “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” Remain in his love always, take courage, and know that joy will come, even when all seems dark—for his joy will be in you, and your joy will be complete.

Reading List
Fr. Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., Friendship in the Lord