This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
The oracles of Isaiah are well described as messages of hope in the ruins. The prophecies which comprise the book were uttered to a nation either on the brink of exile or near the end of it. But in either case, the hope which permeates Isaiah’s message is always preceded by utter ruin. This is very apparent in the opening verses of Isaiah 61, in which Israel’s condition is depicted as dreadfully bleak. Once a nation possessed by the glory of God, they are now poor, brokenhearted captives who exist in the ruins of their former majesty. (Is 61:1–4) They’re reeling. Their condition feels beyond repair. Israel was intimately familiar with misery, but such is what primed them for the message Isaiah was prepared to give.
Identifying Israel’s blemishes encourages us to do the same. For as much as we might dislike it, ruin is always the prelude to hope. Desolation always precedes deliverance. Law always comes before gospel. Turning a blind eye to our calamitous sins results in a deaf ear to God’s glad tidings. In pretending our shortcoming don’t exist, we punt on the prevailing message this season is intended to arouse. “The celebration of Advent,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” To the degree, then, that we acknowledge our own ruin is the depth to which we will embrace the necessity of the Incarnation. Baby Jesus, you see, isn’t merely a nice tradition recognized every 25th of December. Baby Jesus is the indispensable hope of every single sinner, all of whom would be utterly lost unless there was One sent to find them.
Such is what the gospel announces in the coming of the Lord’s Anointed, by whose word and work the lost are found and the desolations are turned into occasions for joy. By his appearing, all the bad things give way to the new things he plants (Isa. 61:3), which signals, perhaps, the most captivating dimension of the Messiah’s ministry. That is, his is a ministry of reversal. It is the precise work of the Anointed One to reverse every dreadful reality of the curse. (Is 61:1–7)
To the poor comes good news.
To the brokenhearted comes healing.
To the captive comes liberty.
To the mourning comes consolation.
To the ruins comes restoration.
The Anointed is coming, in whose presence Israel’s misery will be reversed and “eternal joy will be theirs.” (Is 61:7) Her ancient ruins will be rebuilt and her former glory restored. (Is 58:12; 61:4, 7–9) All the catastrophic consequences of her rebellion are backpedaled and transmuted into cause for rejoicing. Such is the ministry of Christ. “The gospel is the instrumentality,” writes Presbyterian minister William James, “by which this condition is reversed; by which the whole evil of the fall is repaired; by which the power of a seducing world is entirely broken, and the soul reunited in its ancient bonds to her true husband.”1 The unfaithful spouse is not cast off forever. The bridegroom has come to delight in her once again. (Is 61:10–11) The exuberance of the husband and wife renewing their covenantal vows to each other is the exquisite picture given by God himself. With the arrival of his Anointed, the nuptials are revived. (Is 62:3–5)
This gospel of reversal is indicative of what J. R. R. Tolkien hints at in, perhaps, his most trenchant piece writing, an essay entitled, “On Fairy-Stories.” The bulk of the paper encapsulates Tolkien’s apologetic for the merits fairy-stories, but culminates in the coinage of the term “eucatastrophe,” which, as Tolkien himself avers, is what makes fairy-stories so worthwhile. He writes:
The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function . . . 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: never to be counted on to recur. 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 (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far as evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.2
The gospel is, in very deed and word, the “eucatastrophic tale” of the Creator bending the heavens to be among his creatures. And not just “be” among them, but live with them, die for them. The hope of Scripture is the glad tidings of the Lord’s “sudden and miraculous grace” which reverses the catastrophes Eden. (Gn 3) Indeed, as Tolkien proceeds to attest, it is precisely the gospel which is the greatest fairy-story ever told, not only because it is evidently true but also because it contains the “Great Eucatastrophe” of Christian faith and joy. He continues:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories . . . and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete eucatastrophe . . . 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.3
The angels’ chorus of “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” is the herald of God’s eucatastrophe of grace, in which all the calamities of sin and darkness are reversed by the presence of the Messiah. (Lk 2:9–14) His coming signals the dawn of the “sudden joyous turn” of Golgotha’s “good catastrophe,” wherein the Sun of Righteousness himself bears the sin of many and intercedes for the rebels. (Mal 4:2; Is 53:12) Advent, then, is the church’s demonstrable ensign that sin’s endless catastrophes have been interrupted and reversed by the One who is the Resurrection and the Life.
William James, The Marriage of the King’s Son and the Guilt of Unbelief (New York: Randolph & Co., 1869), 95.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 153–54.