Since 1897 they’ve been running the race in Beantown, making it the world’s oldest marathon. And from early on, the race has been likewise tied to Patriot’s Day in Boston, the annual commemoration of that “shot heard ‘round the world” at Concord when the American Revolution is said to have actually begun. But a different kind of shot indeed was heard yesterday when two bombs exploded just before the finish line, killing three and injuring 140 more.
Watching the chaos unfold in Copley Square, I could not help but be reminded of my own student days in Boston, and then a generation later, of my daughter’s similar experiences there. For with more than 20,000 runners and half a million or so spectators, the Boston Marathon is not only the largest annual sporting event in New England, it is a cultural and communal experience unlike any other.
For many years, for instance, the Boston Red Sox have scheduled a home game to begin at 11:05 a.m. on the day of the race, so that the fans can pour out of Fenway Park afterwards into the neighborhood along the marathon route just in time to root on many of the runners. Similarly, those at Boston College often form a receiving line of sorts to encourage those struggling to get up the fabled “Heartbreak Hill,” an ascent nearby the campus which comes some twenty miles or so into the race when all of the endorphins have just about been depleted.
Yet somehow, the runners go on, with some 97% of those who start crossing the finish line 26 miles later, in anywhere from just over two hours, as the record holder from Kenya did two years ago, to a little over twice that, which is the average finish time for everyone else. What makes the race so special, however, is that all along the way scores of strangers not only watch them run, but they actively cheer them on, surrounding them like a “great cloud of witnesses,” inspiring them in the words of Hebrews 12, to “run with perseverance the race” that has been marked out for them.
It was many of those witnesses yesterday in Boston who were injured when the bombs went off, including an eight-year old child who died from that attack. And as the story unfolds in the days to come, we will no doubt hear tales of both tragedy and triumph, for already the medical responders who were on hand to treat any marathon medical issues are being hailed as heroes.
Similarly, some will make a connection between the attack yesterday and the significance of Patriot’s Day, which is actually April 19, in American culture. For it was not only on that day in 1775 that a colonial militia defeated a company of British regulars at the North Bridge in Concord– following the midnight warnings of Paul Revere and William Dawes– but it was also on April 19 that 81 died in Waco during the raid of the Branch Davidian complex in 1993, and 168 lost their lives two years later on the same day in the Oklahoma City bombings.
All of which remind us of the absolute brokenness of the world and of the need for the people of God to step forward to help in its healing. For it remains our task to be those faithful witnesses surrounding all who run the race in life, especially those who may be challenged as they near the finish line at last.
We may not be able to fix all that’s wrong, or even to comprehend the kind of evil that would lead anyone to sow such seeds of destruction as those bombs in Boston did yesterday. But surely we can find a way to counter it with a compassion and kindness of our own, that reaches out in love to show those around us a “better way.”
And maybe that’s the shot that really needs to be heard ‘round the world today.