Friends embark on a Caribbean cruise to Mayan ruins prior to Christmas. They joke that the trip's price might be halved because the ship wouldn't be returning to port.
The Mayan calendar is misconstrued by many to predict the world's end on Dec. 21. Those hyping this end-time scenario expect a killer solar flare may fry the Earth. Or, a geomagnetic reversal of gravity may flip inhabitants off the world.
The Mayan empire stretched from southern Mexico to Honduras during A.D. 250-900. They designed what archeologists dub a "long count" calendar. Unfortunately, it ends in 2012.
What doomsday enthusiasts forget is that this calendar is cyclical. After running its course, another Mayan calendar kicks in. Consequently, the end really isn't that near.
Scholars tell us the "long count" calendar's first cycle has 5,126 years. Mayans believed this calendar began in 3114 B.C. (according to our contemporary Georgian calendar). Use simple math to calculate the world's end. The years from 3114 B.C. to A.D. 2012 add up to 5,126 years, which marks the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere when the day is the shortest. What a chilly forecast!
Other religious traditions center on end-times besides the Mayans. The four Sundays prior to Christmas encompass Advent season at the start of the Christian year. Advent is derived from the Latin word "adventus," which means to come, to arrive.
Christians focus on Christ's coming at Bethlehem and at the world's end. Preachers in the Middle Ages offered sermons during Advent Sundays on themes of heaven, hell, the Great Judgment and Christ's second coming.
Fear filled peasants' lives when hearing such sermons. Their consternation about the end wasn't unlike how Monticello slave Isaac Granger Jefferson felt when British Redcoats' cannon fire lit up Richmond, Va., on Jan. 5, 1781. Isaac saw familiar dwellings blown up. His voice trembling, this slave saw the British "formed in line and marched up to the palace with drums beating; it was an awful sight - seemed like the Day of Judgment was come."
What's a mature, helpful response to this end-times mania?
Be suspicious of Christians who find specific biblical clues about the future. Semitic biblical authors habitually used picture language. Their guesses about the future don't predict. They surmise. These writers refrain from setting dates. Rather, they expected history to unfold on an upward sloping line leading to Christ, not chaos.
They shared the confidence the British displayed when the Nazi blitz bombed London in 1940. With sirens screaming of another attack, Brits ran towards the tubes (the subway) for shelter. Posters with the caption, "Be calm and carry on," reminded them to replace anxiety with concerted action against the enemy.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was wrong justifying the war in Iraq, is right about not being on target in predicting the next terrorist strike. His weirdly entitled memoir, "Known and Unknown," stumbles on what's true about terror and the end times. Rumsfeld admits terrorists are difficult to figure out because of the "known knowns" and the "known unknowns."
Teacher of preachers Thomas G. Long sifts through this gobbledygook and suggests Rumsfeld overlooks the "most perilous ingredient of all: 'presumed knowns,' things we think we know but do not."
Mayans and Christians share Rumsfeld's uncertainty about what lurks in the future. We flat out don't know. "Set your troubled hearts at rest," counseled Jesus when his imminent death crushed the disciples' world (John 14:1). We are calmed as we carry on by leading honorable lives instead of investing in kooky end-time predictions.
Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter on Dec. 11, 1783, to his 11-year-old daughter Martha about forecasting the apocalypse. Colonial evangelists, terrified by a huge earthquake, scared her with end-time predictions. "I hope you will have good sense enough," counseled Jefferson, "to disregard those foolish predictions that the world is to be at an end soon. The Almighty has never made known to anybody at what time he created it, nor will he tell anybody when he will put an end to it, if he ever means to do it. As to preparations for that event, the best way is ... never to say or do a bad thing."
Don't let curiosity about what's coming down the pike unnerve you. Don't spend time speculating. Respect the Bible's insistence that even the angels don't know when the end comes. Rather, do the best you can with tasks God gives. Press on in service. Don't panic.
Life's meaning isn't bound by extravagant, far-out hypotheses about the future. Life hangs together when we invest in good lives.
Quaker theologian D. Eldon Trueblood had it right about dealing with what we can't fathom about the future. "A person has at least made a start on discovering the meaning of human life," advised Trueblood, "when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit."
Breathe deeply. Quell anxiety. Work hard. Don't worry about the future, which is ours to inherit but God's to control.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.