The great JRR Tolkien is credited with coining the word eucatastrophe. He did so by combining eu-, the Greek prefix for "good" and the word catastrophe. By it, he referred to moments in a narrative that are unexpected and shocking, but in the best way. He called it:
"...the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears."
Anyone familiar with Tolkien's work knows this phenomenon all too well. The Eagles' rescue of Bilbo and company and Gandalf's arrival at Helm's Deep are only a couple of the many times in which the reader is gripped with the certainty of defeat and despair, only to have hope and triumph wash over the page with an unexpected turn of events.
The cornerstone of all of Tolkien's work is the belief that the reason the humans are captivated by the stories that move us is that we all have a true story—the story of God rescuing the world—imprinted on our hearts. The reason stories of hope and redemption resonate with us so deeply is because we're created as participants in a narrative centered on those very things. And so when Tolkien includes unexpected turns of rescue in his stories, he does so as a reflection of what he believed to be the greatest intervention of hope in history: the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Tolkien saw the story of Jesus as the penultimate eucatastrophe. And, not only is the story beautiful, but it's true, as well. In a world that had seemingly been overrun with sin and darkness, it appeared to many that God had given up on it all—that his plan of redemption had finally been thwarted and evil had won. We even see the Psalmist cry out to God in despondency:
How long, O Lord?
How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat?
How long will they speak with arrogance?
How long will these evil people boast? -Psalm 94:3-4
Through the prophets, God had been promising to heal the world and reestablish the shalom that was broken by our sinful rebellion. And generation after generation, there was no answer. But then, in a small town outside of Jerusalem, a young teenage girl gave birth and named her child Yeshua—meaning "He saves"—or, in English: Jesus. The waiting was over; God had showed up. Hope was finally here.
Today, we find ourselves in the midst of another period of waiting, this time for Yeshua's second coming. In the same way that Israel awaited the coming of the Messiah, we now expectantly anticipate his return. This is what Advent is all about. Derived from the Latin adventus, meaning "coming," Advent is a time to look back to the First Coming of our Lord so that our hearts can be re-centered and re-focused on his Second. By remembering the season of hopeful waiting that God's people lived in leading up to Jesus' birth, we are reminded of the hope that awaits us as week look ahead to his return.
As the beginning of the liturgical calendar, Advent is traditionally celebrated during the four weeks—specifically, on the four Sundays—leading up to Christmas. Each of the weeks, beginning this year on November 27th, corresponds to a particular aspect of what Jesus First and Second Coming communicate to us. The first week centers on hope, the second on preparation, the third on joy, and the fourth on peace. As we walk through Advent as a church, we'll focus on these truths and what they mean to us as those who can both look back at Jesus' Incarnation and look forward to his Return.
Though the exact date of Advent's origin is unknown, we have evidence that it was officially celebrated in the church as early as the fourth century, and perhaps even earlier than that. As we journey through the weeks of Advent ourselves, we'll be standing in and upholding a long tradition of Christ followers from many different backgrounds, contexts, and denominations. Many things may cause disagreements and even division, but our Lord himself prayed that we would be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:21). Traditions such as this are helpful ways to remember our unity in Christ and the common hope that all believers share in him.
We are very much looking forward to celebrating this Advent season together as a church family, both on Sundays and throughout the week. As those living as those tasked with serving the building of our Lord between his two Comings, this is a great opportunity to remind ourselves of God's plan of redemption that we see in the person of Jesus, both as a baby in a manger and as a King coming again in victory.