There were seeds that got thumb-printed into the ground, and there was bread dough that hadn’t risen. There were farmers and fishermen. There were women in labor, who groaned and bled into the darkness. Jesus saw what surrounded him and pulled it into the stories he told, because a King and Kingdom had come, were coming, were going to come, and it would be like a seed breaking open or leaven filling a loaf.
I plant seeds every spring, as most people do, with more hope than skill. Days of rain had sogged things last March, so when I dropped carrot seeds into a trench, my fingers gummed together. I tucked them in the back corner of my garden, where the ground tilts and water sits. Seeds rot there, I learned. April sang with bluebirds and daffodils, but not carrots. May found me trying again, this time in a raised bed of potting soil, where I drew a trench with my finger and lined it with the last seeds in the packet.
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:26-28).
My niece tiptoed across the hot mulch between garden beds. July was thick, and in the warm months, I give Elsie and the boys garden tours as much as they ask (then more). She twisted a few cucumbers off their vines, then squinted at my brother’s box, where watermelon sprawled somewhere under the weeds. I bent to pluck a low one, but it didn’t budge. I crouched and pulled and the dirt fell away to reveal something orange. I stopped tugging and gently wiggled until a carrot the size of my thumb broke free.
“I planted this in spring!”
My brother looked at me. “I thought you said they never came up.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Three months in the ground had turned it sweet in my mouth.
Jesus said his kingdom would come like a seed. J.R.R. Tolkien put another word to it: eucatastrophe, which is a “sudden and joyous turn.” In fairy stories like Tolkien’s we call it the Happy Ending, when the Ring spirals into Mount Doom and all Middle Earth falls to rest.
In our own Fairy Story, eucatastrophe began with the Incarnation, which blindsided most of God’s people, because God himself had stepped onto their soil to move with their time and put his hands on their hurts. He broke through a door that had never been opened or even knocked on. Like the Sea of Galilee, the world went still at the sound of Jesus’ voice.
“What sort of man is this…?” (Matt. 8:27)
Eucatastrophe is when catastrophe works backward. It’s storm-crazed clouds silenced into a sunset over lapping water. And it happened again at the tomb, when the earth shuddered, the stone moved back, and what was dead breathed again. We celebrate and sing about this. Eucatastrophe can’t be ignored: it’s too big, too sudden, and too capsizing.
“It is the mark of a good fairy-story,” Tolkien wrote, “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…”[i]
But is a seed eucatastrophic? Yeast in bread? Maybe a baby’s birth could be called suddenly joyous, but remember, it comes after nine months. Before Jesus shook the earth, Mary felt queasy with him. She was heavy with forty weeks, and before God planted that Seed in her, there were 400 years of birth pains. God may work sudden joy, but only as chapters in his Story. And the entire Story matters. Even the slow parts, when the baby isn’t ready to come but the mother’s had her fill.
They induced my sister three months ago. I sat with the little guys clambering all over me, restless to meet their cousin. The texts came slowly, saying “Things are slow.” We could only wait, pray, then go about our Saturday work, chores, walks, meals, and football games— but it was with the spark that everything could change, all at once.
Evening wore into night.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for the joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:20-21).
Barrett John came with the morning. I got a text at 3 A.M. that a nephew had been born, black-haired and crusty. Four days later, I held him against me and smiled into his yawns, sneezes, and wrinkles. It was in the sunroom off the back of Drew and Leanna’s little house on Fifth.
Just eleven months before, we’d crammed inside that room on another Wednesday night, a different one.
“Make sure you hug Drew, too,” Mom had said as we pulled up the drive. “This is just as hard on the daddy as it is on Leanna.”
Drew’s face was the first I saw inside the sunroom, and though I’d never really hugged him before, I did then. I wanted him to know that a miscarriage hadn’t made him any less a dad. Then I curled up next to Leanna on the middle cushion of the grey couch and cried into her shoulder.
Now it was January, and we’d come again on a Wednesday night, and I’d opened the sunroom door to see Drew’s face first, smiling over a new one looking back at him. I didn’t cry. I slapped a hand over my mouth and laughed. I didn’t hug Drew. I took his son, and the two of us melted into the middle cushion of the grey couch.
“So also you will have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).
“In such stories when the sudden ‘turn’ comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”[ii]
Jesus comes again. He told us so, and he did it with stories about seeds, wheat, yeast, and long labors. They’re things that take hours and days and months— sometimes, even 400 years. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is coming, but instead of mustering an army, he set children on his lap.
“To such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).
Jesus’ Incarnation may have blasted us with glory, but then he grew up to work carpentry. Maybe his Resurrection blew everyone away, but up to that point, he had spent his life teaching, eating, walking, sleeping, and waking with the sun to do it all again.
There’s eucatastrophe, of course. But there’s also the rest of the Story— the opening, tension, plot twists and simple frustrations. There are fields of wheat, yes. But first, there are seeds in holes. There are newborns with button noses, hallelujah. But first, there are contractions.
Jesus isn’t breaking down our door just yet, but he is knocking. He hasn’t shot light into our faces, but he is warming the clouds of a winter’s afternoon. He’s coming the way a seed breaks into a sprout or a baby grows into the world. However wild the events and however terrible the adventures. When the seeds have rotted and we think there won’t be carrots. When the mother miscarries and we think there will never be children.
Still, he comes.
[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories.” The Metamorphosis. 1947. Retrieved from https://www.excellence-in-literature.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/fairystoriesbytolkien.pdf