During Holy Week I sometimes think of the Woman in the Bus. The bus in question went up and down Los Robles Avenue in Pasadena, California, where Wendy and I lived for roughly twenty years. Much of the time, I walked to downtown Pasadena, but sometimes—especially when I was carrying books and such—I took the bus. Most of the other passengers were black, and one regular in particular caught my attention.
In the late 1970s, when I first saw her, she appeared to be in her mid-fifties, which would make her somewhere around seventy when I last saw her, shortly before we moved to Wheaton, Illinois, in 1994. She was always meticulously dressed and turned out, in a somewhat old-fashioned style. She wore rimless gold glasses, and her at-rest look was stern, but when she was talking with a friend in the seat next to her (typically a woman of similar appearance, though not so elegant), her face was wonderfully mobile. She always carried a well-worn black Bible.
What struck me most when I heard bits of her conversation was the frequency with which she mentioned heaven, as one speaks of an established reality. You could say she talked about heaven in a down-to-earth way. There was nothing breathless in her talk, but it communicated an immense confidence in the hope that all Christians share. This warmed my heart. She made me think of my grandmother (who had died in 1974) and my mother, who had the same unforced conviction.
When that fellow-rider came to mind this week, I was wondering, as I often do, why—in the segment of Christianity I’m most familiar with, a certain slice of what gets called “evangelical”—our expectations for the life to come are so rarely mentioned. More bizarre still is the finger-wagging from Serious Christians who claim that “we” are obsessed with heaven and personal salvation, to the exclusion of God’s desire for us to be salt and light in the here and now. No doubt that is a problem somewhere, but not where I live.
In this Holy Week, as we prepare for Easter, we should pray for a profound reorientation along the lines suggested by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. If we can’t live out, with conviction, what is written there, we should close up shop and stop calling ourselves Christians. If, on the other hand, “we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” we should act accordingly.
What might that look like? The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam died in his mid-forties in the gulag archipelago. Some years earlier, he sketched a distinctively Christian understanding of art:
Art cannot be a sacrifice, for a sacrifice has already been made; cannot be redemption, for the world along with the artist has already been redeemed. What then is left? A joyful commerce with the divine, like a game played by the Father with his children, a hide-and-seek of the Spirit!
Can this really be what Paul had in mind? It sounds rather . . . frivolous, doesn’t it? (He does say, in 2 Cor. 5:6, “Therefore we are always confident.”) Perhaps in time we will have a chance to talk with Paul himself about that, and with Mandelstam, too, under the larches of paradise—unless, as some scolds insist, we will spend eternity doing nothing but endlessly praising God. As if they knew!
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.