What follows is the full text of an article I published on all this in the Christmas Day 2009 issue of The Catholic Herald.
2012: Is it the end of the world?
The recently-released disaster movie to end all disaster movies, 2012, is based on an ancient Mayan prophecy that many believe may be about to come true. And when I say "many" I mean many, as a glance at the airport bookstall or the bestseller lists will reveal.
Hundreds of books and millions of web pages can't be wrong - or can they?
It does feel as though the end of the world we know is at hand. The word "crisis" is on everyone's lips - the financial crisis, the ecological crisis, the moral crisis and the crisis of the family seem to add up to a picture of a civilization teetering on the brink of chaos. Our way of life in the affluent West seems unsustainable, the solutions offered by our political parties inadequate. (The search is on for the "big ideas" that will define the political landscape of the future.)
The lesson that comes to us just as much through science as it does through religion is that the world is ordered and balanced. If that is the case, it makes sense that when the cosmic order is disturbed it will find a way to right itself eventually. Faith tells us that, just as much as ecological imbalance, moral imbalance is unsustainable. The death of millions of innocents and the abject poverty of millions more cries to heaven for vengeance. And when we look at the changes brought about not just by the development of technology in recent times but by the continuous acceleration of that development, some kind of social and environmental crunch-point seems inevitable. Human nature and the ecosystem on which it depends are elastic, but not that elastic.
The attraction of apocalyptic movies is that they enable us to express and indulge our fears - fears of the end of history, fears of technology - but from within the safety of a movie theatre. We can witness the end of the world, as huge cracks open in the earth to swallow our major cities, and giant tsunamis engulf the centres of human power ("Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen!"), without ever losing hold of the caramel popcorn. And we go back to a world that isn't quite as bad as the one we have just witnessed, secure in the knowledge that things continue much as they did before.
Why the Mayans? Partly it is the marketing opportunity presented by their convenient prophecy of an imminent end within the next two years - just time enough to rake in the profits from books, films and DVDs. Partly it is the perennial New Age/ Gnostic desire to be "in the know" with once-secret knowledge gleaned from more ancient and no doubt wiser civilizations - civilizations that were viciously crushed and supplanted by ours during the age of European imperialism. The Mayans dominated Central America for millennia, predating the Aztec and Inca. Though their religion involved human sacrifice, we can be impressed by the level of their mathematics (they invented zero on their own) and astronomy (they mapped the movements of the heavens and may even have detected the Orion Nebula).
The calendar they devised was based, like most ancient calendars, on the idea of cosmic cycles. Not just the fact that each year is a cycle of seasons, and that the sun returns to the same place in the sky, but the belief that human history is bound up with the cosmos in such a way that it goes through a series of cycles before "repeating" itself in a new Golden Age. Intriguingly, it seems that virtually all ancient civilizations, including the Ancient Greeks, shared this belief. You could say the only civilization that (officially, at least) does not believe in an historical apocalypse or End Time preceding a new age of history is the one that seems to be hell-bent on bringing it about.
The ways the Mayans measured historical time was complex. Their long-count calendar was based on year-units of 360 days, despite the fact that they could measure the actual length of the solar year (just over 365 days) with great accuracy. (This suggests that the rounded number was chosen for symbolic purposes.) Four hundred of these symbolic years made up one baktun, and a world-cycle comprised 13 baktuns or 5,200 years. The point about the prophecy is that it measures precisely 5,200 years from the historical starting point of the cycle in 3113 BC. That takes us to 2012.
I am basing this summary not on any of the recent bestsellers but on a remarkable Catholic study of the philosophy of time by Robert Bolton called The Order of the Ages (Sophia Perennis, 2001). Dr Bolton points out the parallels between this chronology and that of ancient India, which measured the cycle of four ages or yugas from 3102 BC, ending in AD 2082. He further points out - a point missed in all the recent publications - that if we translate the Mayan symbolic years into real ones, the Mayan calendar itself would predict the end of our cycle not in 2012 but in 2087 (much closer to the date prophesied in India and, he argues, Plato).
It starts to look as if we may be in the clear. The crunch-point will not come till the 2080s. That would, of course, be nicer for us than for our grandchildren, but it gives us another seventy years to enjoy the fruits of the consumer society before the world comes to an end. Or fifty years, if we accept a further refinement suggested by Sir Isaac Newton, who spent a great deal more time working out Biblical prophecies than the theory of gravity: he was convinced the end would occur no sooner than 2060 (nearly three hundred years ago this was a consoling thought). He based this on the Book of Revelation, adding 1260 years to the date (AD 800) of the coronation of Charlemagne.
The Mormons apparently give canned food as wedding presents, thinking it the duty of every family to stockpile provisions against the day of Judgement. But before we start to do likewise, we should recall some fundamental principals of the spiritual life, not the least of which is trust in divine providence. Jesus himself tells us about the End Times that "that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone" (Matt. 24:36). We are advised to "stand ready and "keep awake", not collect 57 varieties of baked beans in a magma-proof vault. More fundamentally still, according to St Paul as well as the Gospel writers, provided we are living as we should, there is nothing to fear from either earthly cataclysm or final judgement, since we are already "dead", and our real life is "hidden in Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).
Even if we cannot manage to be quite that detached, and are inclined to despondency in the face of all these bestselling End Time prophecies, it is worth remembering that for the ancient writers the "end" was regarded also as a "beginning" - if not an absolute beginning akin to the creation of the earth, then the start of a new cycle that opens with a restoration of justice, a kind of golden age or global jubilee (whether this is the same as the "new heavens and new earth" of Revelation is another question).
Besides, the Book of Revelation seems to have been intended less as a compendium of predictions about the end of the world than as a visionary commentary on the meaning of the liturgy (see the CTS booklet, Companion to the Book of Revelation). The Letters to the Seven Churches were for spiritual preparation and a call to repentance, John's successive visions of heaven were stages in the unveiling of the Cross as the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, his account of the Antichrist and the great Beast describe the spiritual forces opposed to Christ in a world that refuses to accept him, and the Fall of Babylon represents the purgation we must all go through when our attachments to luxury and indulgence are stripped away (whether by Death or Recession). Being patterns of the spiritual life, these inevitably play out in various ways through history too, but the primary reference in each case is to the interior process by which we prepare to meet our Maker at the end of this earthly life. That will, after all, be the end of the world for us, even if our children live to a ripe old age.
So the question we should ask ourselves is, are we "awake"? If we were, and if we truly knew the One who is to come, we would not be afflicted by fear and despair. We would be living in bright hope and "eager longing" for the truth at the heart of all things to be revealed.