By The Rev. J.C. Austin
“You gotta stick the landing.” If you’ve ever watched Olympic gymnastics, you’ve heard that phrase uttered over and over again. People who know next to nothing about gymnastics but want to offer some kind of commentary when watching will look at you knowingly as the athlete lines up for their vault run and say, “you gotta stick the landing.”
Arguably the most memorable moment of the entire 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and one of the iconic Olympic images of all time, was when Kerri Strug, having injured her ankle on her first vault, limped to the line for her second one, which she needed to nail in order for the team to mathematically clinch the gold medal.
Somehow she managed to run and execute an outstanding vault, coming down perfectly in one spot on her feet, “sticking the landing” even as her hurt ankle collapsed under the strain and she lifted it to remain firmly in place, hopping on one foot to salute the judges and only then finally collapsing in agony. She was later carried in the arms of her coach to receive the gold medal with the team because she simply could not even walk at that point. But she stuck the landing, right when it counted the most.
That’s why “Sticking the landing” has become an expressing for ending anything well, and the danger of how a bad ending can ruin an otherwise flawless series of events or accomplishments to that point. It seems to come up particularly around the ending of beloved TV shows, because it is hard to end a TV show well, and it’s crucial to end a great story well.
When you’ve spent so much time immersed in a truly great story, with compelling characters and engaging plotlines and multiple layers of powerful themes, we want the show to stick the landing: to tie up plotlines and resolve the arcs of key characters so we have the sense of the fullness of the story coming to an end. Shows like “MASH” and “Cheers,” are universally regarded as having stuck the landing perfectly with their final episodes; shows like “Game of Thrones” or “Lost” had endings that are generally regarded as so bad that they damaged the legacy of what had been regarded as excellent shows.
And then there’s “The Sopranos,” the groundbreaking show in the early 2000s about a mob boss named Tony Soprano trying to balance the demands of his job as a Mafia leader with his family responsibilities. The finale is deliberately and notoriously ambiguous, with a sudden cut to a silent black screen while the song “Don’t Stop Believin’” was playing in the background that left everyone arguing, still to this day, about whether it means Tony was killed by competitors or that we shouldn’t stop believing that Tony might keep figuring out ways to survive. When the episode first aired, though, the silent cut to black was so jarring that many people thought their cable had gone out, because that couldn’t possibly be the way it was going to end, could it, with no obvious resolution?
Mark doesn’t seem to have a problem with such an approach. He is telling “the most important story ever told,” so the pressure could not be higher to stick the landing and offer a clear and obvious resolution to Jesus’ story. But he doesn’t. The passage JoAnne read is the end of Mark’s gospel, and the last sentence is, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Um…what? That’s basically a cut to black when what we want is the bright light of the morning sun shining down on Jesus standing in front of the tomb, arms akimbo and staring into the middle distance like Superman, with the grave clothes billowing behind him in the morning breeze like a cape. Instead, all we get is an empty tomb, an angel telling the women and us he is not here, and the women being so astonished and frightened by this news that they run away and don’t tell anybody. What kind of ending is that?
Early Christians apparently asked themselves the same question. Most scholars believe that Mark’s original version ended with the women fleeing in fear because the earliest copies of the gospel end there. But it seems that some people felt this ending needed to be “fixed,” and they actually wrote two different endings at different times and tacked them on Mark’s gospel as it circulated, like Hollywood studio producers getting the director’s finished movie and deciding it wouldn’t appeal to a broad enough audience so they recut the ending to make it more palatable.
The first ending is simple: just two verses that say that the women (whom the narrator literally just said did not tell anyone what they saw) told Peter and the people around them what the angel had said, and later Jesus himself sent out the gospel through them. That’s almost literally pasting, “and everyone lived happily ever after” onto the end of the otherwise ambiguous and unresolved ending that Mark first wrote.
In your Bible, it probably somewhat unimaginatively labels these two sentences, “The Shorter Ending of Mark.” There’s also a “Longer Ending,” which clearly draws from later material that shows up in other gospels, and includes Jesus appearing to first Mary Magdalene and then the male disciples, and even giving them a commission to spread the gospel similar to how Matthew ends his gospel.
The problem is, Mark’s original ending is not unresolved. It’s just not resolved in the ways that we’re used to, the ways we want stories to end. It doesn’t have a Hollywood-style happy ending, but it’s not unresolved. The angel clearly tells the women the ending of the story: “He has been raised; he is not here….go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
That’s when the women flee the tomb in terror and amazement. Remember they arrived at the tomb and found it not only already open, but Jesus’ body missing and a young man dressed in a white robe whose presence is alarming, which is a standard description of an angel. But that didn’t inspire terror or amazement or fear. They stay right there and listen to what he has to say. It’s only when he tells them what is happening that they flee in terror and amazement. You see, the problem isn’t that the women don’t understand what the angel is telling them; the problem is that they do.
Jesus getting crucified by the Romans makes sense. Jesus being hated by the corrupt local political and religious authorities who collaborated with them makes sense. Jesus was a threat, someone whom a great deal of people publicly identified as a political and religious threat to the Empire and everyone in league with them. The crowds may have turned against him because he wouldn’t become the kind of threat that they wanted: a militant revolutionary. But that just made it easier for the authorities to arrest and execute him. All that makes sense; it was utterly predictable, under the circumstances. It is the way that world worked, the way the world always works in some sense. It was and is completely normal, even expected.
On Good Friday, a friend texted me saying, “here are some deep theological thoughts from my daughter.” She and her daughter had been discussing the story of Good Friday. Her daughter said, “Mama, Jesus is like Martin Luther King, Jr., because both of them were telling God’s message and they both got killed by people who didn’t want to hear it. Maybe God should just tell those people himself.
I mean, then Jesus would still be alive…I mean, outside my heart.” I told her that she needed to get that kid a pulpit, because it was the perfect encapsulation for what Good Friday means. The world has always killed prophets who tell God’s message, because God’s message threatens powerful people who want to think that they are in charge. That’s what happened on Good Friday; it was normal, even expected, for Jesus to be killed by people who didn’t want to hear God’s message.
But her daughter also set up exactly why the women on Easter morning flee the empty tomb in terror and amazement. Because the point of the empty tomb is that God did tell those people himself, in and through Jesus Christ; that Jesus is alive outside of our hearts through the grace and power of God. The empty tomb means that humanity did not and does not have the power to push God’s saving love out of the world and keep things as they are, keep things normal, even expected.
In fact, what the empty tomb tells us is that nothing is ever going be normal, even expected, the way that it was, ever again. “He is not here” means Jesus is not where he is expected to be, where he is supposed to be: lying dead in the tomb. And it means that where he is, “going ahead” to Galilee, is not where he is supposed to be, at least according to any of the rules of how this world is supposed to work.
Which is also the good news of this ending, of Easter itself; it is why Mark does, in fact, stick the landing of his story. Because it tells us not simply that in Jesus Christ and his resurrection, God broke the power of death over humanity, although that is very, very good news in and of itself. It also tells us that Jesus does not stop there. Jesus goes on ahead, out into the world that had so rejected him and tried to eliminate him; Jesus goes ahead of his followers to where he told them to go, and waits for them there.
And it is there that they will see him; there, and not here at the tomb, not here on Easter morning. Because the power and promise of Easter is not about seeing Jesus take a victory lap over death outside the tomb; it is knowing that when we stop focusing on how we expect things to work and focus on going where the risen Lord has told us to go, and doing what the risen Lord has told us to do, we do not do so on our own, but in the expectation that it is out there, on ahead where he has told us to go, that we will truly see Jesus.
It is in loving God and each other and our neighbors, serving those who are poor or oppressed or excluded, sharing in faithful community with one another, that we always find him. Not because it’s normal, or even expected; but because that is where he has promised to meet his disciples, being ever-present with us in sorrow and joy, in confusion and confidence and confusion, in defeat and victory, in death and in life.
Because if Christ is risen, there are no barriers that can hold him out or hold him back from being with us, especially when we need him most. And Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!