Click here to listen to UCP Audio Commentaries for these films.
I suppose many people grow up in a tradition wherein Palm Sunday is about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. I did not. In Palm Sunday worship services throughout my youth and into adulthood, I never carried palm fronds down the aisle. That practice was not a part of my tradition.
Instead, my pastor focused on the crucifixion of Christ on Palm Sunday. We didn’t have a Good Friday service, so we did at the beginning of Holy Week what most people do at the end. But this service was not just telling the story of the crucifixion. Every year, my pastor shared in visceral, painful detail the physical effects of Roman scourging and crucifixion on the human body. I believe I was about 10 years old the first time I felt I could sit through it. I couldn’t help but cry.
This sermon had the effect of rendering the entire week before Easter a seven-day meditation on the crucifixion and death of Jesus. It was a week of Good Fridays. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese tells the story that his priest always told him that his movies were “Too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday.” At its first screening for a test audience, Star Trek II was also “too much Good Friday.”
I relate the story in our audio commentary that Harve Bennett tells about that screening – the audience filing out of the theatre as though leaving a funeral, Harve thinking, “What have we done?” and a rush to fix the film. Clearly, there was something missing. No one wanted audiences going home from a Star Trek picture feeling depressed.
The ending as we see it now had a far different reception. Bennett describes the audience rising to their feet “as one, with tears in their eyes and applause on their hands.” This, he says, felt good and felt right. Clearly, Bennett and the cast and crew ofStar Trek II (against the objections of director Nicholas Meyer) had restored to the film what had been missing before.
What was missing was quite simple: Hope. The end of Star Trek II all but promises that Spock will return in Star Trek III. It does not, however, let us see Spock actually return. There’s no shadow of the resurrected Vulcan, no pan to Leonard Nimoy’s face with a wink in our direction. We simply know that death may not be the end.
During all those weeks of Good Fridays growing up, in the back of my mind was always the old Tony Campolo sermon, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’!” The suffering and death of Jesus was a hard thing to meditate that deeply on – especially with the knowledge that, as the Dennis Jernigan song says, “It was my sin that nailed him there.” But of course I knew that resurrection was on its way.
Still, I’m glad I had that time of deeper reflection on the death of Christ and on my culpability for it. As Kirk says in Star Trek II, “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.” Kirk, too, is culpable for the death of Spock. Everything that happens in this film is a result of a decision he made 15 years earlier. It is Kirk’s past, Kirk’s sin, which comes to confront him in the form of Khan. Relentless and unyielding, Khan represents the impending spectre of death that has haunted him throughout the film.
“Other people have birthdays,” McCoy complains to Kirk, “Why are we treating yours like a funeral?” Kirk’s inability to face age and death are turning what should be a celebration of life into a time of mourning. What Kirk must learn is that we all deal with death, even as we live.
From a gospel perspective, how we deal with death is transformed by the victory Christ has won over it. The sorrow and pain are still present but, as Paul says, “We do not mourn like those who have no hope.” The hope of resurrection is one we don’t see yet, but that we can know is coming. I certainly knew how the story of Jesus was going to end when I was 10 years old, but that didn’t keep me from mourning for the pain and suffering of Jesus and the loss felt by those who loved him.
In the same way, every time I watch Spock die in Star Trek II – every single time – I’m affected emotionally. I’ve seen the next picture. I know Spock comes back. But I still mourn him.
At the same time, I am moved by what Spock’s sacrifice means for Kirk. Spock doesn’t just save Kirk’s life. He delivers Kirk from the death that he has earned. Because of this, it is not just an external victory against Khan that Spock has earned for Kirk, but an internal victory against a kind of “death while living,” the loss of hope in the face of mortality.
Spock restores Eden to Kirk’s heart and Christ restores us to Eden as well. And he does this at the cross. The empty tomb is important, but it is not the victory. It is the cross that is the victory because it is there that Christ pays the price for our salvation. The resurrection is the proof.
“Live long and prosper,” the dying Spock says to Kirk, and because of Spock’s death, Kirk is able to do just that. In the same way, Jesus said that he came so that we may “have life and have it more abundantly” and it is through his death that we receive this life.
As we start off our Star Trek Holy Week on a kind of Good Friday note, I hope it will cause you to reflect on what makes Good Friday good – that Jesus, like Spock, died in our place. He accepted the consequences of our sin, took our burden upon himself and paid our debt for us. Because of this, we can deal with death – and life – in a whole new way.
For more on Spock as a Christ figure in these films, you can read my essays in Spockology. You can even get a signed, personalized copy!