For Bostonians, the Marathon Finish Line on Boylston Street has now become sacred ground--perhaps it is even becoming a sacred symbol, value, or idea.Of course, the finish line has always been where the race ends, where the victors are crowned with laurels, where some arrive with arms raised in triumph while others stagger across or even collapsed onto it.
But for all, since 1897, it has denoted the gold standard of running, since for most runners at Boston the aim is not to win but rather to finish the planet’s most prestigious road race. Crossing that line is a personal victory for all of them.
But now that finish line has been transformed. It means more than before. One churchgoer returning to one of the Copley Square churches closed off as part of the crime scene said, “Now it’s a starting line too.”
From now on, the finish line is also where the bombs went off. Future runners will finish only by passing the two spots where three people died and more than 200 others bled. And very likely the finish line will soon have a memorial to the victims attacked on April 15, 2013.For Christians, of course, the symbolic power of the finish line is nothing new, since the Apostle Paul long ago employed the image of athletic achievement to describe his own life as his and approached:
“I have fought the good fight, I have run the good race, I have kept the faith:”--2 Timothy 4:7
And Paul himself was echoing the way the prophet Isaiah viewed life’s need for strength and endurance:
“But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”--Isaiah 40:31
The stress in both images is not on competition, but on accomplishment, not on winning the race but on finishing the course, not on the contest but on the journey and its destination.
Later Christians built on these images to establish a long tradition of seeing our life as a journey. This view evolved from seeing life as a race to the image of a pilgrimage which follows its path to its end—but the idea of the race to the finish line was never lost.
No doubt part of the popularity of the Boston marathon lies in its power to evoke our life’s long struggle to endure all trials and overcome all obstacles until we finally arrive at our natural end.
Sometimes someone’s life actually fits this image. When my father died last year at 94, my wife said, “He died at the end of his life”--a life that really was a long, fully lived journey to its natural finish (see CrossCurrents #370, “A Quietly Heroic Life”).
But this is not always so. As Boston 2013 showed and life teaches, the finish line can be moved.
Runners still on the Boston course after the bombing were stopped short of 26.2 miles. Yet they were awarded medals for finishing, which meant that for some the finish line was Kenmore square, for others Commonwealth Ave., for others someplace further back along the course. The finish line moved, caught them unawares, and suddenly ended their races.
The same is true in life, since for some of us the finish line of life arrives well before anyone expects.
I have already written about the child whose life was more like a sprint than the marathon, ending only eight short weeks after his birth (see CrossCurrents #378, “Precious Child”).
As I drafted this piece, another young Boston University student died in a house fire, the 11th BU student to be killed (counting the marathon victim) in the last 12 months.
And on Wednesday, April 17—two days after the bombs and 24 hours before the suspects’ images became public—another runner reached his early finish line. Our close friends’ son Matthew Shea had suffered leg pains while running high school track; these led to a 10-year-long effort to outrun the cancer infecting his body. Through several remissions and relapses he not only persevered but filled his life with more acts of courage, generosity, and love than many people achieve in three times his lifespan. He died at 27 knowing, as did his loved ones, that he had run the good race with steadfast hope no matter how fast his finish line was approaching.
In reality, the same is true for all of us.
We are all alike in living our lives as a journey that (for most) is more like a marathon than a sprint. But we are all unique in that, while we all run the same race of life, each of us runs a personal race on a different personal course. For each of us, the finish line is different. For each of us, the finish line is a moving target. For each of us, its final location cannot be known.
We may pace ourselves like marathoners, looking forward to careers and vacations and children growing and marriages and grandchildren and retirement. But that is like saving enough energy to get over Heartbreak Hill and still have enough left for the last few miles to the official end of the race. The fact is that our own personal finish line may not be at the end of the official course (called “life expectancy”). For each of us, the finish line may be just round the next corner.
Yet we run on, filling our lives with as much joy and love and hope and courage as we can before our finish line arrives—and trying always to be prepared for it.
For those who died on April 15, 2013, the marathon’s finish line was their unexpected finish. For the injured, it was a turning point; their lives are changed forever. And for all of us, it was the reminder that none of us controls the course we run.
Six days after the Boston bombings, the London Marathon was held amid heightened security. The runners wore black memorial ribbons and made their intentions clear: they are determined to make a show of strength in the face of violence at Boston 2014.
So next year we can expect more runners, more wheelchair racers, more midnight cyclists, more volunteers and spectators and memorial honors. The 118th running of the Boston marathon may well surpass the record numbers of the 100th running.
And for all those hundreds of thousands along the course in whatever capacity, as well as the millions watching on TV and Internet, that famous and now sacred finish line on Boylston Street will mean more than ever, especially at 2:50 PM.
Perhaps there will be some special moment of commemoration. Perhaps the church bells will toll. And if they do, all of us will know they toll not only for those who died, not only for those injured or traumatized, but for all of us who each day, all our lives, run toward life’s certain, sacred, but unknown finish line.
And that will be our shining moment to show that Boston has found new strength, and will not grow weary.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2013