Could you imagine the Lord of the Rings without the death of Gandalf?
I remember reading the story for the first time and being shocked that his encounter with a Balrog ended with him falling to his death. I was attached to Gandalf and felt he was taken too soon. I stopped right there, put down the book, and moved no further for a long time. Later, I spoke with a friend who had finished the series. He was going on and on about Gandalf the White. I asked, “Who is that? Gandalf died.” He replied, “Right, that’s where the story really takes off!” I confessed in that moment that I had stopped reading, but now I wanted to know what happened. Wisely, my friend pushed back. “No way! You can’t appreciate Gandalf the White unless you understand the death of Gandalf the Grey.” Then he called me out for being lazy and challenged me to read the whole story. I did.
I discovered that without the sacrificial death of Gandalf the Grey, the hellish Balrog of Morgoth would have lived on to spread the fear of death in Middle Earth. Gandalf the Grey fought, endured, and defeated the demon, giving his life in the victory. Through his death, Middle Earth encountered Gandalf the White. Same, but different. Familiar, but strange. Resurrection is like that. The darkness of the struggle with death makes the light more brilliant.
In one of our subsequent discussions of the story, my friend asked how I processed the suffering of Jesus. I told him that I didn’t believe our focus should be on the death of Jesus, but the resurrection of Jesus. He asked if I’d ever been to a Tenebrae service, a service of shadows and darkness. I was speechless and thought of the best reply I could muster … “I’m Baptist.”
I attended the Tenebrae service at his church and it was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life. The service was all about darkness, suffering, and hopelessness. It ended with no benediction or song. Just darkness and silence. Something wasn’t right. Something felt wrong, incomplete, and even foul. I didn’t like what was put before me and I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I wanted to think about the resurrection, not about this. Why are we so prone to only glance at Golgotha in our rush to the Garden Tomb? Maybe another story can help.
My favorite move of all time is The Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufrense is falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to life in prison. He finds the sentence will be his death, so he gets busy living by digging a tunnel, quite literally becoming buried and entombed on his journey to freedom. In the darkness of night, and in the raging tempest of a thunderstorm, Andy endures the most grueling, disgusting, and hellishly difficult struggle of his journey. In the words of his friend, Red,
“In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank prison. All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer, worn down to the nub. Andy crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of [sewage] smelling foulness I can’t even imagine, or maybe just don’t want to. Five hundred yards… that’s the length of five football fields, just shy of half a mile.” – emphasis mine
Something began to change in me the night of that Tenebrae service. The passion of Jesus; his betrayal, his trial, his friends selling him out, his loneliness, rejection, beatings, crucifixion, and the experience of being forsaken … all of it hit me like a freight train. For the first time in my life, I looked to the suffering servant. I gazed upon Golgotha. The ugliness, the foulness, the tragedy of it all. In that service of shadows I began to understand that the greatest defeat in history became the greatest victory in the cosmos.
Never had I experienced the passion of Jesus with such darkness.
Never had I experienced the resurrection of Jesus with such overwhelming light!
For years I missed so much of the story simply because I didn’t want to see it. Like Red says of Andy Dufrense’s redemptive slog through the sewer, “I didn’t want to imagine it. I didn’t want to think about it.” I think too many followers of Jesus look away from the suffering servant on the cross this time of year.
I know this because of how I and some others responded to that first Tenebrae service, as well as the responses from folks experiencing Tenebrae services held in the churches I’ve pastored since then. Everyone is moved in at least one of several ways. Some are moved to an experience similar to my own – discomfort giving way to deeper understanding. Others have come to say it is the most moving service of the whole year. Each year, however, some are troubled, uncomfortable, even offended.
What is a pastoral response to such reactions? I believe it is to prayerfully lead people to understand that the story of Jesus without the cross is not the full story.
As Robert Campbell Moberly writes in Atonement and Personality, “No conception of the work of Christ, or of the hope of Christians, is really compatible with the New Testament, which would sweep aside the fact, or minimize the transcendent significance, of the death on Calvary, regarded as the unique atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind.”
You don’t get the whole story of Jesus without an unflinching focus on the isolation, the darkness, and the decent into absolute abandonment endured by the God forsaken Son of God. Holy week unveils again the power of the passion and calls us to participate, experience, mourn and marvel as the power of sin, death, hell, and the grave are unraveled in dramatic fashion. It’s a eucatastrophe, a term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien that describes
…the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears. And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love. – The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Letter 89. Recipient: Christopher Tolkien. Date 7-8 November,1944
The cross is essential to the cosmic eucatastrophe of Holy Week.
In a sermon on Holy Week, Walter Brueggemann observed, “We cannot leap from Palm Sunday to Easter. We have to go day by day through the week of denial and betrayal to the Last Supper to arrest and trial and execution. That is the only road to Easter, and that is our work this week.”
From the palm branch path of “Hosanna” to the blood soaked barrenness of “My God, Why have you forsaken me,” to the triumph of “It is finished.” Then, the blessed words, “He is risen” will mean more than they ever have before.