The Good Catastrophe


And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away. And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave.

Matthew 27:59b-61

The two Marys had just watched Joseph place Jesus in his own grave. In some translations it says that this was a garden. So when we picture this, our minds naturally imagine two women on a park bench surrounded by flora waiting for Jesus to come back to life.

Mark tells us the women were looking on to see where Jesus is laid. Luke writes that the women returned and prepared spices and perfumes. Matthew is the one who tells us the women are just sitting there.

I’m sure from the writer’s perspective it may have appeared as if they were doing nothing. But they weren’t. Mary Magdalene and Mary were most likely crumpled on the ground, holding one another, as they wept. They were sitting there because there was nothing else they could do. They did not have the strength to stand, let alone walk bravely home, while Jesus’s tomb disappeared in the distance behind them.

They weren’t waiting there, expectant with faith, for a front-row seat to the Resurrection. They were waiting there to finish the burial ceremony before the Sabbath passed. It was over. The Son of God was dead.

Jesus spent hundreds of years preparing his followers for his death. In prophecy and parable, he told them. He warned them. But no amount of words prepared them for this. They had given years of their lives to this man, this hope of the world. Jesus had died. Was buried. Betrayed them by his leaving. Their hearts went dark.

This image won’t leave me. These two broken women sitting outside the tomb. It’s too close to reality, too familiar to me. I feel a connection with these women, paralyzed by their grief, with no room in their hearts for hope.

I have lived for months at a time, years even, sitting outside the tomb. My life had come crashing down on me like Atlantic Ocean waves, the deadly rip current pulling me beneath the water, as I thrashed and panicked, thinking, This is it. This is the end. And almost wishing that it was.

I spent two years battling a despondency that threatened to consume me. The last six months of it I spent asking God, ”Where are you?” “What are you doing? You promised me that all things worked together for good, but this? This is too much.” I was collapsed and crumpled outside the tomb, grieving, weary of living in a brutal, pain-wracked, sin-sick world.

All of us have felt that ache of emptiness or loneliness or lostness that forces us to ask, “Why are you not here?”

For some of us, it’s long years of surviving abuse and yet living every day with the damage done.

For others, it’s an addiction, secret and shaming, that leaves us despairing of ever being free.

The death of a friend, a parent, a child.

Job loss. Financial hardship. Failure.

Marriages on the brink, infidelity, separation, and divorce.

A child who lives in your home and yet feels lost to you.

Parenting a special needs child the best you can while never feeling like you’re good enough.

Silently struggling with your sexuality or gender identity. 

The ravages of chronic illness.

Surviving abuse, rape, and trauma.

The suffocating shadow of depression.

Coming to terms with decline, aging, and our own mortality.

How many of us here are living in this wilderness of waiting? None of us expect to end up sitting outside a tomb believing that our story is over and there is no happy ending for us.

Without the tomb, we would have no need for a God who overcomes the grave.

But the tomb has to be there. And we all have to spend some time sitting outside it. It’s where repentance finds us. Where we finally, reluctantly reveal our brokenness. It’s where healing happens.

It’s the place where waiting and wisdom collide.

Without the tomb, none of us would be hurled onto the shore, rescued. Without the tomb, the story would be incomplete and worthless. Without the tomb, we would have no need for a God who overcomes the grave. Without the tomb, there would be no place or reason for resurrection.

Life doesn’t end at the tomb, or even inside the tomb.

The tomb is the pinnacle of the most unlikely of fantasy stories—a man who comes back from the dead because he loves his family so much, he couldn’t bear for them to believe that he would abandon them. He wanted his children to believe that they were worth dying for, and even more, worth defeating death for.

The tomb is a gift that leaves our hearts so desolate that only the resurrection can heal them.

J. R. R. Tolkien created a literary term for this: eucatastrophe, from the Greek meaning good destruction. Destruction with a purpose, a meaning, that brings about an eventual good. He describes eucatastrophe as “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears. . . . because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth. The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story.

“But the ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect . . . the Consolation of the Happy Ending. . . . or more correctly of the good catastrophe. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies universal final defeat.”

Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is at the heart of the Gospel story, and Jesus gives his followers a rare opportunity to experience the “sudden and miraculous grace” of prophecy fulfilled by the Son of God.

He himself is the good that comes from the catastrophe.

And we have the rare opportunity of living in the aftermath of that good destruction, of living in this grace that is permanent and unchanging, personal and eternal, a story we have been written into. Even though we ourselves experience loss and despair in all our stories, He has overcome the world for us, has promised us deliverance from universal final defeat, and He will return in glory to make our joy complete.

Tammy Perlmutter
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