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end of days

The Final Countdown

Are economic, environmental and social calamities converging to herald the end of the world as we know it?

Whether the coming year will bring the apocalypse, the dawning of Aquarius or simply continued global warming, economic destabilization and social unrest is a matter that should be resolved once and for all by late December 2012 — or until the next round of doomsday predictions, if you don’t believe the hype.

Troll the Internet for “2012 prophecies” and be prepared: Results turned up 130,000 entries ranging from “Mayan End Time Prophecy” to “Identity of the Antichrist Revealed”; and with many a modern Nostradamus analyst throwing a chapeau into the ring of prognostication, the question as to whether our days are numbered has been asked as often as it has been — conflictingly — answered.

So, what’s the deal? Is the planet scheduled for demolition on or around next year’s winter solstice? And why do so many seem to think it is?

Religious and mystical traditions around the world, and across the ages, each express visions of the “end of times” and/or the beginning of new ages. In our time, when Earth and her human inhabitants seem to be erupting in upheaval, many look to ancient traditions, or modern interpretations of ancient traditions, for explanation.

Unsurprisingly, this latest round of doomsday brouhaha comes on the heels of some well-publicized recent fizzles. For instance, who could forget the crescendo leading up to last spring’s Rapture event?

In case you were distracted by less important things, the world was bombarded by a media blitz courtesy of Christian radio host named Harold Camping who prophesized a fastidiously timed apocalypse that was slated to engulf mankind on May 21, 2011, at precisely 5:59 p.m.

The Rapture, of course, is belief in the final assumption of Christians into heaven during the end-time, according to theology based upon New Testament passage 1 Thessalonians. Mainly anticipated by evangelicals, the practical mechanics of Rapture seem akin to a scene out of any Star Trek episode — where Captain Kirk is transported away, seemingly out of thin air, just seconds before calamity strikes.

Needless to say, by 6.p.m on that fateful day in May, there were many disappointed evangelicals who — perhaps foolhardily — believed the 89-year-old doomsday prophet.

What most listeners didn’t know was that Camping, then-president of a California-based Christian programming network called Family Radio, had made similar predictions in the past — as many as two dozen according to the Associated Press; his earliest forecast apparently dated back to 1978.

Why, then, was last May’s purported Rapture so influential? Family Radio embarked on a reported multimillion-dollar ad campaign, purchasing space on more than 5,000 billboards and employing 20 RVs to carry the message.

Camping urged listeners to “drain their bank accounts” prior to their orientation meeting with St. Peter. After the religious ordnance failed to detonate, Camping explained that his math was off. Callers to his radio show, Open Forum, seemed less than amused.

“You’re really pathetic, you know? I wasted all my money because of you. I was putting all my money and my hopes on you … I wish I could see you face to face, I would smack you. Mr. Camping, you always say a lot of (redacted). I lost all my money because of you, you (redacted),” a caller said, according to The Christian Post.

Undeterred, Camping issued a new proclamation that the previously scheduled Rapture would occur on Oct. 21, 2011. Shortly thereafter, the now nonagenarian retired from his position as president of the broadcast network he helped found.

Lest you think evangelical Christians have a lock on failed end-times predictions and/or messianic longing, one need look no further than the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. — home of the late Rebbe.

While rebbe, or rav, are terms of endearment some religious Jews use toward favored or esteemed clerics, in this case the proper noun sets him apart. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known to Lubavitchers worldwide simply as Rebbe, was one of the best-known modern day spiritual leaders in the Jewish world.

As the religious leader of the Lubavitchers — the most visible of the ultra-Orthodox Chasidic groups — Schneerson engendered a devotion arguably unrivaled in the modern-day Jewish diaspora. During the 44 years he spent at its helm, Schneerson rebuilt a movement nearly destroyed during the Holocaust and turned it into a thriving, worldwide outreach machine.

Schneerson used newspapers and billboards, and his “mitzvah mobiles” — RVs that took the Lubavitch message to the streets — to draw nonreligious Jews to the movement.

With a network of missionaries, called emissaries, and religious institutions ranging from yeshivahs to Chabad Houses, Schneerson created a network that provided a Jewish presence in places where otherwise there was none — from Shanghai to Katmandu.

When he died on June 12, 1994, at the age of 92, the signs of messianism began appearing in his synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway. Banners stretched a message across the walls that reportedly read: “Long live the Rebbe, King Moshiach. Forever and ever.”

The inherent problem with Schneerson being the Messiah, of course, is that the man died more than 17 years ago and has, according to all accounts, remained interred within his granite mausoleum in neighboring Queens.

Membership in a monotheistic religion is no prerequisite for messianic/end-times angst. In 1997, a onetime mental patient named Marshall Applewhite, leader of a new age religious cult called Heaven’s Gate, along with 36 followers, downed a lethal cocktail of Phenobarbital and vodka to catch a ride toward a higher plane of existence courtesy of the spacecraft they believed was flying behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

Professor Howard Lupovitch, Waks Family Chair at the University of Western Ontario, describes the common thread in mystical traditions as “some kind of unity,” often a unity with God.

“It’s the great human security blanket. It’s a way to excuse or explain difficult situations,” the professor explains. “There are people who are anxious to trade the present for the future.”

It’s no wonder. What don’t we have to worry about? Current news headlines describe the economy with words like “turmoil,” “emergency” and “crisis.” Add in tsunamis, global warming, earthquakes, melting polar caps, rising oceans, near-Earth object impacts and what appears to be a 500,000-year-overdue reversal of the Earth’s magnetic poles. If it’s not bad, it certainly doesn’t sound good.

But is it apocalyptic?

The Mayans: Soothsayers or Scaremongers?
Over the last decade, endless books and websites have been dedicated to discussion of predictions transpiring in 2012. Most of these prophecies seem to anchor their credibility around the notion that the end of the ancient Mayan Long Count Calendar completes its current 5,125-year cycle on Dec. 21, 2012.

The Mayans, lauded for their advanced mathematic and astronomic prowess, were not the first civilization to create calendars based on star charting — just the most well known. Meso-American star charting started around 680 B.C.E. by the Olmec civilization that lived in what are now the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco.

Christopher Pool, a professor of archeology at the University of Kentucky and author of Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica, explains that the Olmec eventually shared their knowledge of star tracking with the Mayans, who had already been tracking the winter solstice, most likely for planting crops, to create calendars.

“At some point, the Mayans developed the belief that our sun is a god and that the Milky Way, which they called the “Sacred Tree,” was a gateway to the afterlife,” Pool explains. “After learning from the Olmecs, the Mayans began keeping records of the stars’ patterns of movement and continued to do so for the next 200-300 years before they developed their own calendar [known as the Long Count calendar] around 355 B.C.E.”

The Mayans, using empirical observation and numerical aptitude to calculate the future movements of stars across the sky, inadvertently discovered that Earth’s wobbling as it spins on its axis affects the tracking of stars’ patterns of movement. The practical effect of the wobble, known as precession, is that it causes celestial patterns of movement to drift gradually in the sky during a 5,125-year cycle.

Also discovered by the Mayans is that one time every cycle, the dark band at the center of the Milky Way (called the Galactic Equator) intersects with the Elliptical (the plane of the sun’s movement across the sky). During that year, the sun reaches its solstice — a moment when the sun’s position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer (on Dec. 21 for the Northern Hemisphere and June 21 for the Southern Hemisphere) — at the moment of the conjunction of the Galactic Equator with the Milky Way. The year this occurs, in relation to our Gregorian calendar, is 2012 C.E.; it last happened on Aug. 11, 3114 B.C.E.

As Pool explains it, with Mayan mythology teaching that the sun is a god and the Milky Way is the gateway to life and death, the Mayans concluded that the previous intersection must have been the moment of creation. Hieroglyphs discovered in Mayan ruins seem to indicate that they believed the next intersection, in 2012, would be some sort of ending and new beginning of a cycle.

For some perspective, though, Pool says, “The Mayans also believed that the blood of human sacrifices was what powered the sun and gave it life.”

Internet doomsday sites almost invariably cite a Mayan “prophecy” regarding the end of that cycle. But “there is no specific Mayan prophecy,” states Bruce Scofield, Mayan astrology expert, author and geosciences instructor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “They’re making it up,” he says, referring to what he calls “self-appointed non-native Mayan prophets.”

Anthony Aveni, the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology at Colgate University in New York, and author of The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012 ($19.95; University Press of Colorado; 200 pp.) says, “We have a habit of projecting our own Western predilections on other cultures.”
Mayan writing, he adds, contains “virtually no mention of future time. The Mayans were very past directed, not future directed.” The end of the calendar cycle represents no more than “the next overturn of the cycle of time.”

Aveni says there are 3,264 books on 2012 and maybe two or three of them are scholarly. “If you want to learn about the Mayans, you shouldn’t buy the others,” he says. Those books include Mark van Stone’s Science & Prophecy of the Ancient Maya  ($60; Tlacaelel Press; 172 pp.) and 2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Mayan Apocalypse by Matthew Restall and Amara Solari ($16.95; Rowman & Littlefield; 149 pp).

What Sayeth You, HaShem?
“People who predict the end of the world are just trying to rip you off,” says Pastor Paul Langford of the First Baptist Church of Westchester in Southern California, noting that the biblical punishment for false prophecy is stoning. “They’re taking advantage of people and taking advantage of their fears.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Langford says that Jesus states: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

He adds, “as we look at the shape of the world, every century looks more like [the time of] Revelation than the previous one.”

The Book of Revelation is the last book of the New Testament and contains St. John’s account of his vision of the apocalypse.

In it, the Lamb (Jesus) opens the seven seals of a scroll, releasing the Four Horsemen (commonly understood to represent Conquest, War, Famine and Death), the cries of the martyrs, cataclysmic events and, finally, seven judgments.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ disciples ask, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” His response: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”

These verses have led would-be prophets throughout recorded history to surmise that harbingers of the events foretold in Revelation have arrived, says Langford.

Jewish tradition, which eschews the fire and brimstone of its offshoot brethren, holds that in order for the Messiah to make his appearance on Earth, certain things must be achieved before the world can enter the “Messianic Age.” A second critical distinction between Judaism and Christianity is that the Jewish Messiah is not a supernatural being — he’s flesh and blood and a descendant of King David.

Bringing about the Messiah, or Melech ha-Mashiach in Hebrew, which translates directly as “the anointed king,” is almost an inverse from Christianity in that Jewish Scripture holds the Nation of Israel (different from the State of Israel) responsible for ushering his ascension to lead the people Israel and enjoy an era of harmonious coexistence, abolition of sickness, poverty and war.

Which text you consult, rabbi you ask or branch of Judaism you align with will illuminate the threshold.

The universal biggies include the return of all Jews to Eretz Yisrael — from Dan to Beersheba — the former referring to the biblical home of the Jewish people and the latter as an allusion regarding one end of the country to the other; and reconstruction of the Holy Temple — the ruins of which are conveniently located beneath the current home of Islam’s Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah, or Dome of the Rock mosque. The foundation on which the mosque rests is known in Judaism as “the Temple Mount.”

Lupovitch cites the great 12th-century Jewish poet Judah Halevi, who said, “If all the Jews would go to Israel and wait for the Messiah, the Messiah would come.” Halevi was a man of his word and did just that, in 1141.

In the 16th century, the father of the modern Kabbalah movement, Isaac Luria, along with his followers, explored the idea that righteous deeds would release the energy of shards of divinity embedded in the material world, as Lupovitch explains, “making the world perfect to bring about the Messianic Age.”

“There are references in the Bible to the end of the world,” says Lupovitch. Said references include passages in the Books of Daniel, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others. However, many modern scholars assert that the messianic concept is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Torah but was introduced in subsequent texts.
Regardless, the concept of Mashiach is as much a part of Judaism as the Sabbath, Chanukah and bagels and lox. It is included as part of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon’s 13 Principles of Faith.

Maimon, better known as Maimonides or the Rambam, is universally acknowledged as one of history’s greatest medieval Jewish scholars. The Rambam’s 13 Principles, where No. 12 is belief that the Messiah will come, are a compendium of precepts — and the minimum requirements of Jewish belief.

“There is this notion that the Messianic Age will follow some disaster,” but “if there is some retribution from God, it will be followed by some sort of utopia. The main consistency,” Lupovitch says, summing up the range of Jewish thought on the matter, “is that it is all speculative.”

The Oracle at Gaul
Michel de Nostradame, also known as Nostradamus — and perhaps the world’s best-known prophesier outside of Delphi — has been credited time and again for predicting the end of the world.

Nostradamus, who descended from a long line of Jewish doctors and scholars, was a French apothecary, healer and purported seer who published several collections of prophetic yet cryptic verses in the 16th century. That collection has been cited as foreseeing a range of historical events, from the French Revolution to 9-11.

For example, in Century II, Quatrain 6 (a century is a group of 100 quatrains or four-lined verses), the name “Mabus” has been taken to indicate as diverse a group of individuals as Napoleon, Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Barack Obama:

‘Mabus’ then will soon die, there will come 
Of people and beasts a horrible rout: 
Then suddenly one will see vengeance, 
Hundred, hand, thirst, hunger when the comet will run.

Like many passages from the Bible, the quatrain clearly anticipates a time of turmoil, but — like most apocalyptic literature — it is frustratingly vague, alluding potentially to natural disaster, the wrath of God or maybe even the Hopi Indian prophecy: “When the Blue Star Kachina makes its appearance in the heavens, the Fifth World will emerge.”

And that, according to Langford, is part of the point.

“People have been sitting on a hillside waiting for Jesus since 70 [C.E.],” he says. “The Christian tradition is that we’re prepared, but you don’t let it interrupt your life. Sitting on the hillside isn’t an option for a true follower of Christ. You’re supposed to continue doing the work up to the moment.”

Aveni, the professor at Colgate, is pragmatic about the anxiety that has coalesced around 2012. He is of the opinion that any predictions concerning when the world will “blow up or bliss out” come out of the anxiety we have about troubled times.

“When we have hard times we reach out, in this case to the ancient Mayans,” he says.

However, Scofield, believes that a metamorphosis is coming down the pike. While it may not be the apocalypse, he says there is a disturbance going on and characterized it as the birth pangs of a new world.

“Birth is not a comfortable process. Power holders are going to be assaulted; dominant institutions are going to be challenged,” Scofield says. He describes the coming period as the Dark Ages that preceded the Renaissance. “That was a big mess, and yet it changed the world,” he adds.

Aveni concurs: “There’ll be a new beginning,” he says. “If we transform ourselves by focusing on [our current problems] then that might be a good thing.”

An actual Mayan prediction? Aveni asked a Mayan shaman what would happen after Dec. 21, 2012. The answer: “We hope that on the next cycle of time, things will be better.”



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