On that dark, damp, dreary morning, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb expecting something. Darkness clings to her like a cloak. She was there at the foot of the cross two days ago. She waited, hoping against hope that God would be victorious and Jesus would be miraculously saved. And then she prayed that God would take Jesus faster, because despair was setting in and his suffering was overwhelming to witness.[i] She cried so much that night, that her eyes ran dry. After 48 hours of dazed despair, she drags her lifeless body through the darkness to tend to her beloved Jesus’ body. Seeing his body one more time will only confirm her grief, but at least she has somewhere to go to mourn; at least his cold body will confirm his death, and begin a journey toward closure. Mary Magdalene comes to that tomb in darkness expecting something.
We too come to church today expecting something. Maybe we are expecting a word of joy, the release of the alleluias we have been holding in for weeks. If we attended the myriad Holy Week services this week, maybe we are expecting a relief from all the darkness of the liturgies during these last holy days. If we have not been to church in a long time, maybe we are uncertain as to what to expect. We came here seeking something – some sort of connection, a sense of familiarity, or maybe a place that will accept us as we are, letting us take things as slowly as we need. Or perhaps you were dragged to church today by a family member, and the most you are expecting is an hour of your time taken away – and that certainly feels like a period of darkness for you too.
If Mary came expecting one thing, what she gets is altogether different. The absence of Jesus body puts her over the edge. The first thing she does is run to get the disciples. But even they only confirm the awful truth that keeps compounding. Humiliating him, torturing him, and crucifying him were not enough. Now they have taken his body too? Having the disciples leave Mary Magdalene alone again starts the downward spiral that seems endless. This is why she cannot see the angels in their glory – she only mutters a response to them and turns away from the tomb, her vision blurred by her tears again. This is also why, when a man appears, she desperately begs the man to tell her where he has taken the body. And then the unexpected happens – or at least perhaps what she had hoped might happen, but would never let herself say aloud. Rabbouni! Her teacher is back!
But Jesus only partially fills her expectations. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says. His words must have felt like a slap to Mary’s fragile self. In the instant that she recognizes Jesus, a whole new set of expectations arrive. Surely, they can flee to Galilee again and keep Jesus safe. But Jesus changes things yet again; Mary Magdalene’s expectations cannot be fulfilled. Things cannot return to normal. What Jesus invites is not a return to the way things were, but to a way that is even better than the way things were; a way in which she can develop new expectations for her life in Christ.
When I graduated from college and relocated to Delaware, I was looking for a United Methodist church. I had experienced a particular style of worship in my hometown, and was looking to replicate that experience. After six months of frustrated looking, I stumbled into the Episcopal Cathedral. Parts of my expectations were met – the Cathedral had one of the most diverse populations I had ever seen – racially, socioeconomically, ethnically, by household definitions, and by sexual orientation. They were doing some incredible urban ministry, and seemed to have an inspiring commitment to the poor. But the worship killed me. It was so formal and the music was so uptight, that I wondered how such a progressive church could be so rigid. I remember hearing an offertory anthem one Sunday that was so good that I said a very loud, “Amen!” at the end. I realized right away that that was not what was expected of me. Ultimately, after several Sundays, I decided that I would stay, but only temporarily. When we moved again, I would just look for another United Methodist church. But God had other expectations for my life.
That is the funny thing about expectations. Both the realistic expectations Mary Magdalene has – the expectation to remain in bitter darkness – and the hopeful expectation Mary has – that everything could go back to normal – are not met. But that does not mean that Jesus does not make a way out of the darkness. We have heard from the very beginning of John’s gospel about Jesus and the light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” says John’s gospel[ii] The later, John says, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’”[iii] Jesus, then, this light of the world, cannot meet the expectations of Mary; because Mary’s expectations are smaller than God’s. Mary cannot go back to the way things were. But the way things are going to be is infinitely better. “God gives a new kind of life, a life that is still worth living, a new kind of aliveness toward God and the world…”[iv]
Mary’s interaction with Jesus invites us to consider our own expectations of this day. If we came here today, only seeking joy without transformation, then our expectations might go unmet today. If we came here expecting to rub out all the darkness of these last days, then our expectations will only be partially met today because we cannot celebrate the resurrection, without the cross ever with us. If we came here as seekers, expecting to just sit in the pew and then go back to our lives, then our expectations might not be met either. Once we learn that this room is full of seekers just like us, who want us to enrich their journey, this place cannot be seen in the same way. Even for those of you who just hoped to survive this hour of forced worship will not have your expectations met. Because even if you are not touched today by Christ’s light, those who brought you here are being touched by the light; your relationship with them will be changed because they are being changed.
So the polite Southerner in me wants to say, “I am so sorry we did not meet your expectations today.” But at the end of the day, I am glad that our expectations are not met today. God is doing bigger and better things than we can imagine. Our job is to trust that the light of the world will lead the way into the new resurrection journey that awaits us. Amen.
[i] Joan Gray, “Beyond Rescue,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 22, no. 3, Easter 1999, 51.
[ii] John 1.5
[iii] John 8.12
[iv] Gray, 52.