All of us are familiar with the catastrophic event that send destructive shock waves out into time and space.
A clear example is the dropping of the atom bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The bomb itself was a spectacular example of how a tiny disruption—the fission of atoms—could set off a chain reaction of destruction. The bomb was credited at the time with ending the war in the Pacific, but it also sparked the Cold War which itself ignited countless hot wars and led to a deadly nuclear arms race.
We often see a similar process in the economy.
When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt on September 15, 2008, who could have foreseen that it would, in part, trigger the financial crisis, pop the housing bubble, and crash the economy? We’re still feeling the reverberations of that one event in our economy, politics, and our society at large.
We commonly call such events catastrophes—a word from the ancient Greek which simply means an ‘overturning’ or sudden, unexpected reversal of fortunes, according to one definition. Catastrophe need not have a negative meaning. Certainly some things could be overturned leading to positive results—such as the ‘overthrow’ of a tyrannical regime. But the word quickly acquired negative connotations in ancient Greece and continues to be used in this way today.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of our fallen world: sudden unexpected reversals always seem to be negative. And their effects usually also seem quite far-reaching as well: one singular event can set off a chain reaction, whether an atom bomb, bankruptcy, or an abusive parent.
All this is turned on its head in the Incarnation.
The Incarnation, while it was foreseen dimly in Old Testament prophecy, was nevertheless a completely sudden and unexpected event. (This is particularly evident in the figure of Satan, whom some Church Fathers regarded as caught off guard by the event of the Incarnation.) And it reversed the fortunes of mankind—but for the better.
I believe this is what J.R.R. Tolkien had in mind when he coined a new term, ‘eucatastrophe.’ By adding an eu—the Greek prefix simply meaning good—Tolkien meant to designate an event that is catastrophe in the sense of being a surprise and fortune-reversing, but with a happy ending. Here is how he explained it:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace. …
Tolkien here has in mind the happy endings that sometimes adorn fairy tales. But he believed the power of these stories derived from the real world—in other words, that there really are true eucatastrophes. For Tolkien, the ultimate eucatastrophe was the Incarnation:
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. It has pre- eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’
The Incarnation not only reversed the fate of mankind, but it reversed the normal process of reversals: rather than being a reversal that destroys, it was a reversal that creates.
Usually catastrophes have a destructive effect, in both the material and spiritual worlds. The atom bomb vaporized bodies and buildings and leveled two cities. A shipwreck ends lives and leaves families of the departed devastated. Bankruptcy ruins lives and livelihoods. A catastrophe we might say is disruptive—it creates a rupture, a wound in the very fabric of reality, it seems.
The Incarnation, as a eucatastrophe, was ‘disruptive’ for the good.
Consider the events of the infancy narratives. In the Annunciation to Mary the normal hierarchy of being is reversed, as St. Thomas Aquinas notes: in the Old Testament, it was angels who were venerated by man. But now a woman is venerated by an angel. Since the Fall, paradise had been walled off from the rest of the earth. But now heaven breaks through, spilling out onto the earth as the choir of angels sings to shepherds. Many leaders of the chosen people fail to recognize the arrival of their messiah, while three kings of Orient do.
Whereas catastrophes disrupt to destroy, the Incarnation disrupted to create anew: man was restored, the world was redeemed, and all things were reconciled to God.
Catastrophes are not only disruptive, but they also seem far-reaching in their effects, as amply illustrated in the above examples.
Again, the Incarnation was also far-reaching.
It reached back in time to undo the effects of the Fall. And it also extended powerfully forward in time. We continue to experience its effects. The graces from it continue to flow through the waters of baptism and the wine of the Eucharist. It’s built the Church. And its light continues to shine on billions, bringing them to faith in Jesus Christ.
There are those who are drawn so deeply to the original brilliance of the Incarnation that they give themselves over to it and are completely absorbed but it, turning their own lives into eucatastrophes. We call these special people saints. They too reverse reality in a positive direction. And so the chain reaction of new creation continues.