It is a little-known fact of biblical history that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were, in their hearts, profound optimists. They both were women who liked to look on the bright side, women for whom the chalice was always half full. So when they left their house in the dark hours before dawn on that first day of the week, both of them were trying, even after the events of two days before, even after a Sabbath spent weeping through their prayers, even after a second sleepless night of worry and fear – they were still trying to look on the bright side. They were trying to imagine the best thing that could happen that morning, even if the best was not particularly great.
Mary Magdalene’s thoughts went something like this, “At least the Sabbath is finally over. At least we know where they buried him. At least the other Mary is with me. And wouldn’t it be great if, when we get there, the guards are just gone? Then we would be able to prepare his body for burial as we should. If we can do our work in peace – that would be the best I could ask for.”
The other Mary was thinking this, “At least we’re out doing something. At least the two of us are here to check on his body and make sure no one has stolen it. At least we’re women, and no one will ever see us as a threat. And wouldn’t it be great if some of the disciples have come to see his body as well? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if John and Peter have managed to suck it up and come out of hiding for just a moment? Wouldn’t it also be wonderful if they finally remembered my full name instead of just ‘the other Mary’…but no! I’m trying to look on the bright side. I’m trying to imagine the best possible outcome of this trip – that the disciples will be there, that the guards will be kind and helpful, that we will be able to care for his body properly, and that someone, at some time, will call me Mary Bat-Jonah.* That would be the best I could ever hope for.”
But when Mary Magdalene and Mary Bat-Jonah get to the tomb, of course, nothing is as they had hoped. There are no disciples waiting there to greet them; the guards are still there, menacing as ever; and the stone that sealed the tomb is still solidly in place. But then, in an instant, everything changes. Still nothing is as they’d hoped, but everything is much, much better. The earth trembles and an angel blazes down from heaven to roll away the stone. The guards pass out from fear – ha! – and the angel tells the two Marys that Jesus has risen. The tomb is empty; he is gone. Jesus is already on his way to Galilee; go and tell his disciples where he is, the angel commands, go and share the good news! And so the women run from the tomb, their hearts pounding with excitement, their eyes glistening with excitement and tears, their breath coming short in little giddy laughs. They run from the tomb, back down the road to Jerusalem to share this astonishing new bright side with their friends.
Can you imagine? they say to each other, panting as they run. Can you imagine their faces when we tell them? I can see them now, Mary Magdalene says. They’ll be all huddled in the dark, and when we come back so soon they’ll imagine that we’ll have had trouble. Mary Bat-Jonah tosses her head back and hoots with laughter. And then we’ll say that we’ve been to the tomb and he isn’t there…but there was an angel, Mary Magdalene interrupts her, who told us that Jesus is alive! The women look at each other and grin, and that grin says it all: this is the best that they could ever hope for.
Except that it isn’t. Because suddenly, as they are running along the road, they look up, and Jesus is there, standing before them. He is not on his way back to Galilee, he is right there, arms wide to greet them. Their hearts leap in their chests, and they fall down at his feet, surprised by joy once more. Isn’t this a glorious moment? The Marys are already bursting with happiness, filled beyond their wildest imaginings with a kind of joy they have never felt before. They are flying back to Jerusalem on wings of pure delight, but even this miracle is not good enough. Our Lord cannot help himself; he cannot help but to meet them himself and to make this good, this great, even better. And in this moment, the Marys witness an important truth of this Easter morning, a truth that their story reveals also to us – that the best that we could ever hope for still falls far short of the best that God has given us. The best that we could ever hope for is still not all that God has in mind. God’s imaginings for us are far greater than our own; God’s bright side is far beyond even our sunniest, most optimistic dreams. God’s dreams are not the best that we could ever hope for. God’s dreams are always even better.
It’s so easy for us to miss the breadth and depth of God’s dreams for us. We imagine what the best we could hope for could be, and then we somehow convince ourselves that that must be what God hopes for too. If I could just get that job, if I could just get that boy, if I could just find more time, more money – if I could just stay healthy forever. But God’s imagination is bigger than all that. God’s grace, God’s generosity, God’s mercy and love are all exponentially greater – no, not exponentially – infinitely greater than our own. Whatever our hopes are, whatever our desires, whatever our best-case scenarios, God’s are always even better.
Now here’s just a little disclaimer – God’s even better is also usually a bit of a surprise. The two Marys might have been trying to imagine a scenario where the temple guards were kind and helpful, but please notice that God’s better idea was not for them to show up to find the guards smiling and rolling back the stone for them, calling them by their given names, picking them bouquets of fresh flowers, and offering to rub their tired feet. God’s dreams are better – truly better – than what we can imagine, which sometimes means that they look quite different. You don’t get the job you wanted, but that helps you to realize that maybe your true calling is to go back to school. You don’t get the boy back, but you find someone else, someone perfect for you, someone who unbeknownst to you is an incredible baker. You don’t get more money, but this helps you to see and serve those who have less than you do. You don’t find more time, but you find more meaning in your time. You don’t stay healthy forever, but in your weakness you find new clarity, an acceptance of others’ brokenness, and the capacity to let others care for you and love you as Christ commanded them.
This is why we pray every day that God’s will be done – not because our own will is always wrong, but because it is always limited. God’s will for us is far, far better than our own. My thoughts are not our thoughts, God says, neither are your ways my ways. And thanks be to Him! Because if our salvation were limited to the kinds of things that you or I could imagine, we would never have this night.
For we would never have been able to imagine a night like this. We would never have been able to imagine a night when darkness itself is vanquished by the eternal bright side of this holy fire. We would never have been able to imagine a night when wickedness is put to flight, when earth and heaven are joined and women and men are reconciled to God. We would never have been able to imagine a night when death is defeated, once for all. We would never have been able to imagine a night when the whole body of Christ is strengthened and expanded when we call two new members by their names in baptism. We would never have been able to imagine a night when we could proclaim with one voice, Alleluia! Christ is risen! Death is conquered, we are free! Love wins! We could have imagined for all our lives and never imagined the kind of Grace that is given to us on this holy night. For this is night when Christ is raised and we are raised up with him. This is the night of even better.
*I am as sure that this was not actually "the other Mary's" name as I am that she actually did have one.
Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs
Easter Vigil 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia