I have often wondered what thoughts and fears must have dominated that first Holy Saturday for the disciples. Theirs was surely a case of the most severe traumatic whiplash, forced now to ponder and process the seeming finality of Good Friday’s horrors a mere six days after the elation of the Triumphal Entry. In less than a week, they had experienced human emotion at both its highest and lowest ebbs. The Lord of Life was slain, and all the hopes of the last three years lay silent with him in a borrowed grave.
Scripture does not tell us whether the disciples remembered Christ’s prophetic words about what would happen on the third day. I think it safe to assume that, even if those words were remembered, they were likely recalled with the natural skepticism that would dampen the hopes of anyone who had just witnessed the dramatic brutality of a crucifixion. I would imagine that such hopes, if they were present at all, seemed threadbare and vain, a longing for something so unfathomably good as to seem impossible. A longing they could not process through any existing category of imagination.
Anyone who has been kind enough to read my posts over the last few years will know that hope has been for me a consistent, though somewhat nebulous, theme. I think most past discussions have done more to emphasize the need for hope, as opposed to highlighting its actual nature. Recent months and circumstances, however, have lent themselves to more thinking about the latter.
To that end, I’ve begun to wonder if there might be a link between real hope and the imagination. At first, I noted that whenever the happy ending—whatever that might be—can be grasped, comprehended, or imagined, hoping suddenly feels less like chasing after the wind. Ironically, this realization has been crystalized for me not in moments of hope, but in moments of despair. I wrestle to hope for the happy ending when I have no ability to imagine how in the world that ending might be brought about. I despair when my imagination cannot conceive a way forward such that “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Yet, I can imagine that I am not alone in this struggle.
The eighth chapter of Romans mercifully provides a refutation to this conception, perhaps even a razor to help us divide true from false hope. Paul recognizes its elusive nature by saying, “Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees?” By this definition, I cannot help but wonder if my easily imagined “happy endings” are not actual hopes at all—they are merely false “hopes” that are “seen,” in the words of the Apostle.
But if this distinction is at least generally true, it still, frankly, leaves me feeling a bit high and dry. What does it actually mean to hope for something I cannot see? Must I feel the anguished pull towards despair before I can hope rightly? How can I cling to the reality of a better ending that feels so utterly beyond my grasp? I think that the narrative lens of Holy Week can at least begin to answer some of these questions when we recognize that it is truly a blueprint for how our own stories play out on this side of the empty tomb.
Consider that the events from Palm Sunday through Holy Saturday represent perhaps the most tragic storyline ever written. The hero’s moment of supposed triumph was swiftly followed by a heartless betrayal, the agony of which was compounded by the desertion of his followers, and an unjust conviction of wrongdoing by a bloodthirsty mob. The hero then suffered the most excruciating and humiliating death, a death so catastrophic that even the natural order of the world was stunned into darkness, and God himself turned his face away. Every hope for a joyful ending had been cruelly stripped away, and those who had wished for such an ending were instead left to pick up what little remained of their former life. Surely they could not imagine the tide ever turning. Surely there could be no recovery from such a climactic blow.
We know, of course, that there was such a recovery; indeed, “recovery” seems a paltry description for the kind of unlooked-for reversal of fortune heralded by the Resurrection. The impossible actually happened. Every convention of the human imagination was overturned and outdistanced by Divine Love, leaving the disciples in a state of joy and wonder that the rest of us likely won’t attain until the Last Day itself.
I spent years grasping for a way to describe such joy before I realized that, unsurprisingly, J.R.R. Tolkien had already coined a term for this kind of unfathomed, unexpected euphoria, this “sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with joy that brings tears.” He called it eucatastrophe, modeling its narrative power with the swift and astonishing defeat of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, but drawing his inspiration from the Gospels themselves. In his words, “The Resurrection itself was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible, in the greatest Fairy Story.”
Perhaps, then, proper hoping doesn’t consist in waiting for an imagined “happy ending,” so much as it consists in waiting for eucatastrophe itself—waiting for an ending so unspeakably wonderful that we could have never imagined it the first place. Sam Gamgee’s reaction to the news of Sauron’s defeat encapsulates this phenomenon perfectly:
Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: “It wasn’t a dream! Then where are we?”
And a voice spoke softly behind him: “In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King, and he awaits you.” With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white and gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. “Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?” he said.
But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: “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?”
In the unending mercy of God, we can look to the Resurrection and be assured that such hope is not a fool’s hope, or perhaps, rather, that the seeming fool’s hope might actually be the only true one of the lot. This is a comfort, because waiting for the mending of such a mad world—for the mending of our own shattered and feeble hearts—feels most often like a fool’s hope indeed. But as we wait to be “brought out of the fire to the King,” the Empty Tomb stands as stunning witness to the truth that there is a King, and that he is alive—and that the fire and the darkness have not overcome him.