The End of the World

We almost didn’t make it to tonight.  As many of you will know—namely, those who stocked your earthen bomb shelter with years’ worth of canned goods and lamp oil—the ancient Mayan long calendar proclaimed that the world would end on December 21 of this year.  Actually, it didn’t quite say that.  On that date, December 21, the calendar itself simply ended.  Stopped short.  Cut off.  And for many the implication was that history itself would cease on that very day.  In recent months, people predicted that on December 21 the earth’s rotation would reverse itself, or that a rogue planet called Niburu would collide with earth, or that our world would be swallowed by a black hole.  In any event, on December 21 the world was supposed to end.Mayan calendar

The furor surrounding the Mayan calendar has been laughable.  It’s the stuff of children’s hysteria, and, indeed, my own kids have been coming home for the past year telling me of their friends’ playground predictions of the Mayan Armageddon.  But it’s not all humorous.  ABC News reports a rash of desperate actions contemplated by frightened people, including some who considered suicide pacts on December 21.[i]

That the Mayan long calendar ends on December 21 is no accident or coincidence.  December 21 is the date on which predictions of earth-shattering disaster, of eternal and unremitting darkness, have most often occurred throughout human history.  December 21 is, of course, the winter solstice.  It is midwinter, the shortest day, the longest night, the point at which it seems for all the world that the encroaching darkness will overcome the light.  Warmth and life are at greatest risk of being snuffed out entirely.   This is still today, at some deep and visceral level, the root of our fear.  We’re afraid of the dark, and right to be.  And in our world of electric illumination it’s difficult to imagine just how terrifying the winter solstice was for pre-modern people.

One such group of people lived five thousand years ago in Ireland.  These nameless Neolithic people, who we would in our twenty-first century arrogance call primitive, built a mysterious, enormous, and sophisticated earthen domed temple at Newgrange in northeastern Ireland.  Five thousand years ago.  That’s six hundred years before the first cornerstone was laid for Egypt’s great pyramid at Giza.  That’s three thousand years before the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary and a star guided the holy family to Bethlehem.

NewgrangeThe Neolithic people at Newgrange disappeared around 2000 B.C., and around that same time the temple entrance collapsed, sealing the interior.  From then on, subsequent waves of people approached the Newgrange temple with a mixture of mystery, fear, reverence and awe.  Newgrange emitted a palpable spiritual force.  It was, as the Irish say, a “thin place.”  The Celts, who arrived on the island around 500 B.C., determined that their gods must live in the temple.

So powerful was the aura at Newgrange that it, unlike other prehistoric sites, was never molested.  For almost five thousand years no one dug through the collapsed entrance and looted the temple.  The Romans, who called Ireland Hibernia, “the frozen land,” never attempted to conquer the island, but they did make forays, and they did visit Newgrange.  Roman coins have been found scattered around the temple base, and their presence suggests to the imagination powerful, armor-bedecked Romans soldiers tossing coins in tribute to Newgrange and then backing away slowly in respect of the temple’s own power.

Only at the dawn of the Enlightenment, when men and women began to scoff at the power of spirit, was Newgrange opened.  And not until 1962 was a careful and systematic excavation undertaken and the original entrance to the temple reconstructed.  When this occurred, it immediately became obvious what the purpose of Newgrange was.

Newgrange interior passageNo less than the Mayans, the Neolithic people of Ireland were terrified of December 21.  Each year, as the winter darkness encroached upon their northern latitude, they feared the sun would fail to rise altogether and the black of night would be eternal.  And so they built their giant temple, adorned with spiraled, stone-carved art; supported by a corbelled roof that doesn’t leak after five millennia; with a single, long, narrow passageway that ends at an altar. Just above the temple entrance is a small rectangular opening, and the temple is oriented just so that at dawn on December 21—and on no other day of the year—the first shaft of sun light pierces the darkness of that passageway like a laser.  It travels the length of the temple and ends squarely in the center of the altar.

For the Neolithic people, this was cause and effect.  Newgrange was their offering to the sun, with prayers that the sun would enter their world as it enters their temple and make that world new, that its light would not be overcome by the darkness.  The temple was built as the incarnation of a hope that the sun would come.  It is difficult to decide which is more impressive, the engineering feat of Newgrange, or the potency of the faith that constructed it.

In 2011, twenty-four St. John’s pilgrims and I traveled to Ireland.  We visited Newgrange, and we saw firsthand the wonder of the temple.  Its spiritual power is, indeed, palpable.  But when we entered that holy place and reached the end of the passageway, we realized something that the literature fails to tell.  In a fashion different from many other Neolithic temples, the interior of Newgrange is cruciform.  Its three altar chambers connected to the passageway form the head and transepts of a cross.

Such an aberration can be explained in numerous ways, and it can, indeed, be explained away.  But not by me.  With C.S. Lewis, I believe that through every mythic story, every conception of God, every hope and every prayer, the world has been readied for the Incarnation of God in Christ.  And perhaps nowhere on the globe was this more so than at Newgrange.  The Celts were right to grant the presence of God in that place.  The Romans were wise to back away in reverence.  Through the faithful labor of a prehistoric people, across millennia in which men and women of widely varying faiths without exception held Newgrange in awe and wonder, the world was primed for the coming of Jesus.  Three thousand years before the holy family traveled the dusty Judean road to Bethlehem, Newgrange anticipated the Christ child.  Two thousand years after Jesus’ birth, in these last gasping moments of Advent, we do the same.

Newgrange is, indeed, an offering to the Son.  On the darkest day of the year, it is a testament to the divine light, which John’s Gospel assures us the darkness cannot overcome.  All those ancient people—Mayan, Irish, and others—missed their calculations by only a few days.  The old world did not end on December 21.  It ends tonight.  Christ is born, and with him the world is born anew.  God again joins us in our human struggle.  God’s light enters the world like a laser, piercing our darkness and illuminating the paths before us.  The angels sing, “This is good news of great joy for all people.”

Indeed it is.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Amen.

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