Tragedy in a comedy in a fairy tale

You’ll laugh!  You’ll cry!

Scripture has many scenes of great and tragic drama, but let’s not miss the moments of comedy that can deepen our appreciation of the story.

One of my favorites is from Acts 12:1-19.  Herod Agrippa I (grandson of the Herod of the Christmas story) had begun a persecution of Christians, executing James the son of Zebedee.  When his approval ratings went up, he arrested Peter as well, and locked him up under heavy guard.

The local believers started a prayer vigil.  The night before his trial, Peter was asleep, chained to his guards.  Suddenly, an angel blazed into the cell, woke Peter up, and caused his shackles to drop to the floor.  “Get dressed and follow me,” the angel instructed, leading Peter out of prison and into the street.

Peter thought he was dreaming.

When the angel left and the dazed Peter finally came to his senses, he ran to where the people had gathered to pray.  Peter knocked; a servant girl named Rhoda cautiously answered the door without opening it.  When she recognized his voice, she ran excitedly back to the others, leaving poor Peter standing outside the locked door.  Rhoda gave them the happy news–to which they responded, “You’re nuts.”  She insisted.  “Well, all right, then, maybe it’s just his angel,” they conceded.

This, from the people who were praying.  Imagine the scene.  Peter is still outside, pounding on the door; the people inside are praying for him but won’t acknowledge what God has already done.  And when they finally open the door and see him, they are more than a tad surprised.

Narrative theorists sometimes classify storylines in terms of their trajectory.  A tragic plot goes from good to bad to worse; a comedy, however, has a happy reversal of fortune.  Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; then through an often unexpected turn of events, boy and girl meet again.  The fairy tale adds one final, familiar element: they lived happily ever after.

Acts 12 is comic because of the miraculous reversal wrought by God.  Those praying for Peter were obliviously stuck in a tragic plotline, and couldn’t believe the good news when it came.

To some extent, discipleship is a matter of imagination and vision.  True, Peter was free, but James was still dead.  More persecution would arise.  And yet–the church must always remain alert to the gracious reversals that remind us that God is sovereign no matter what the circumstances.

Frederick Buechner, in his marvelous little book, Telling the Truth, describes the gospel as tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale, all rolled up into one.  There is the tragedy of the ruinous effects of sin, culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus.  There is comedic reversal in the resurrection–both the resurrection of our Lord and the mini-reversals of resurrection life in the power of his Spirit.

But all of this is bound up in the hope-filled anticipation of the eternal happy ending.  We are, by nature, most readily attuned to tragedy.  But in our own prayers, and in our conversations with each other, we need to cultivate our sensibility to the comedy and the fairy tale as well.

The promise of Scripture to the followers of the resurrected Jesus is that we will all live happily ever after.  And the question is whether, even in the midst of seeming tragedy, we can and will embody that resurrection reality now.