It is a land, you have been told, where the mountains climb for miles. That is why, as night begins to drift across the scenery flashing by, you sit weary in a train.
You wait, as the train clacks on, to see the mountains climbing up to snow; the waterfalls, they say, burst silver out of the evergreens, dark green shading into purple, that hold up the mountains’ sides; the valleys, they say, stretch their deep pile carpets of emerald grass between the bases of the mountains, buttercups weaving a golden pattern in the green.
A sob of brakes on metal; the train slows; it stops. There are no mountains to be seen, and hardly any trees. There is grass, and there are buttercups, but they shiver, sodden and dull, under the rain dripping from slate clouds whose lower swirls barely clear the housetops.
The land they have promised may be here, but also it may not be.
Who can tell, who can even find strength to care, you think, walking under the beat of the rain, shuddering in the jacket you had imagined opening to the sunshine of a fabled place, not closing against a sullen wind?
You walk on, far from home, awash in the disorientation that accompanies travel and the loss of all the props that convince you you know who you are. You turn sodden inside, as the rain and wind drive down into your soul. This is not what you had in mind. Perhaps this trip you’d better just cut short.
There were those who undertook a similar trip, some two thousand years ago. The Gospel of John, a travelogue, offers one perspective on the trip. John tells us that one day a train screeched into the station called Israel. Jesus got off, and he told the milling crowds, the tired tourists wondering which train to take next, that His train was headed to a fabled land, a kingdom where the mountains climb for miles.
Some dull eyes lit. Their owners followed Jesus up the steps into the train. The train pulled out, and clacked on to the promised kingdom. But when it got to Kingdom station, it was raining, and there was not much to do but watch water drizzle down your nose.
Except, says John, that sometimes Jesus performed signs, and the rain would slow, and up in whatever corner of the sky the sun was — if you had any faith it was still there — the gray would turn a lighter shade. Six signs John says Jesus performed, one shy of the perfect number seven. He turned water into wine and healed both a boy with fever and a paralyzed man. He fed five thousand, put light into a blind man’s eyes, and called Lazarus back from death.
These signs show us, thinks John, that Jesus came to bring light into darkness; to break the bonds of sin, disease and death; to whisper into our ears a vision of a kingdom filled with waterfalls crashing silver.
They show us, to put it more philosophically, that through Jesus the eternal broke into the temporal. It’s hard for the non-philosopher trying to enter a mind that has been dead for two millenia to know precisely what John thought, but Mark Helprin offers a key.
Helprin has written Winter’s Tale (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), a novel set, of all places, in a New York City that is not now but someday might be. Helprin’s fantasy is that someday New York will turn into a beautiful city, “a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.”
Why and how will that come about? Because, thinks Helprin, every act and movement and thought in ail creation means something. The fabric being woven from the merging together of all that has been, is, or will be, shall lead to the emergence of the perfectly just New York, a city shining on its hills.
But there is pain and doubt on the way. Virginia, one of Helprin’s characters, is groping through such a time. Her mother calls her back to faith:
“No one ever said that you would live to see the repercussions of everything you do, or that you have guarantees, or that you are not obliged to wander in the dark, or that everything will be proved to you and neatly verified like something in science. Nothing is: at least nothing that is worthwhile. I didn’t bring you up to only move across sure ground. I didn’t teach you to think that everything must be within our control or understanding…. If you won’t take a chance, then the powers you refuse because you cannot explain them, will, as they say, make a monkey of you.” (p. 597)
Helprin’s vision flows from merging the eternal and the temporal together, and what that means for him is one of the things it may have meant for John. In Helprin’s world, reality encompasses more than the flat, temporal dimension we normally experience. Life for us tends to flow as a succession of disconnected events:
It is Monday; we pull on our clothes and go to work and come home; what for, we’re not sure. We talk to someone; for one rare hour not to be repeated, our spirits merge; then it ends. We look into the eyes of a daughter, three years old; brown eyes; they are feeling mischievous, those eyes; they widen; they close to slits, above the freckles twinkling on her nose; the moment lasts thirty seconds, if that; it ends.
But what if behind the temporal lies the eternal? What if Monday-go-to-work, a special talk, brown eyes grinning over freckles are all being woven together? What if they all mean something? Ah, then we live in a dramatically different world than we have thought.
Then, indeed, there may be waterfalls up there. Somewhere, above the rain, water swoops down over a ledge, then leaps out — crashing, twisting, dancing down over the rocks.
Something like that is what John is trying to tell us. That is why he shares the signs that flowed from Jesus, signs “written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20-30).
And so we board our train, a train to the kingdom more magical than any Disney dreamed of, the reality we enter when we perceive that — beneath the disconnected randomness of temporal life — eternity is being woven.
When we got there, though, the rain drips on. We see the flashes of light as Jesus for moments here and there weaves things together, and with the blind man we open our eyes to see what we have never seen before. But always the clouds roll in, and then one day they pile up black.
Jesus is dead.
Lies, no doubt, all lies. No eternity. No meaning to brown eyes except that soon they will be thirty, then ninety, then dead, never to grin again. No mountains. Nothing. Just rain, and sodden buttercups.
The habits of temporal thinking are too strong. If today Jesus is dead, if today there is only rain, that is all there is. That, I suspect, is what the disciples experienced when Jesus died. With them, we believe only in what we can see and touch and prove.
Then it is the first day of the week (John 20:1-9), and Mary Magdalene trudges forth. Through the rain, to the tomb, she trudges. The stone is not in front of the tomb! Back to “Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” she races.
They race back. The beloved disciple wins and looks into the tomb. He does not go in, perhaps because his stomach is churning and his breath is coming fast — as behind him it seems the drizzle is lessening and the air warming.
He looks in and sees the grave cloths lying there. Simon Peter catches up. Together they creep in. the way the grave cloths lie suggests the dead body that once lay in them has come to life and leaped out of them. The beloved disciple looks at those clothes once wrapped around the one he loves, and he believes.
He believes. He believes Jesus is alive! The last sign has been given. The perfect seven is complete, we look at the cloths with him. Some of us, at least, believe with him that Jesus lives. We believe in eternity.
We believe that everything that ever was, is, or will be, means something, and that a weaver is at work who knows just what tapestry is being weaved. We believe Monday-go-to-work will be woven in; that brown eyes are a window into eternity; that each fleeting moment we embrace another human spirit lives forever.
We believe. And for an instant only, because the story is not yet all told and the rain will fall down still for many a day, the clouds break. The wind dies, except for a few soft tendrils. The sun shines. We are on a trail winding up a mountain. The evergreens shimmer green shading into purple, and silver leaping from them shivers down. The buttercups skip through the green valley below.
Above, way above, where we can see they will gleam even above the clouds that are about to sink back down, climb the mountains up to snow.

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