by Wayne Self
They say children play out their anxieties. For example, psychologists tell us not to be surprised to see children exposed to the violence in Newtown playing out the scenario. Re-enacting it. Maybe certain pop culture phenomena are our adult way of doing the same.
It seems we have a need to envision and play out the end of the world. There’ve been many popular apocalyptic cults, of course, but our larger society also has its Y2K’s and its Mayan calendars. We have our zombie apocalypses and our asteroid armageddons.
I wasn’t raised with the “liturgical calendar,” but I’ve come to appreciate it. For those of you who don’t know what that is, my (limited and queer-ified) understanding is that it’s a set of holidays and seasons that commemorate the life of Jesus by basically “re-enacting” it throughout the course of the year. It starts with Advent, when we’re to be expecting the birth of Jesus, then moves on through his birth at Christmas, his life through the rest of the winter, and then ends with the death and resurrection at Easter.
Making it into a calendar like that, and observing things in that way, has you essentially playing out the story of Jesus every year. It’s make believe. It’s ritual as role-playing. It’s commemorating events by living them out symbolically in real-but-accelerated time. It gives a sense of time passing, but in a cyclical way, repeated way. It orders your seasons and years. It gives immediacy. Mary and Joseph are on their way to the stable now. Soon, Jesus will be born.
Interesting, though, that the calendar doesn’t observe Jesus’s return and the apocalypse. I wonder if that’s a pretty glaring oversight.
Just as living through Advent and Easter helps us to embody—and thus come to more intimate terms with—heady concepts like fate, birth, death, friendship, and salvation, maybe “living through” the end of the world helps us to embody the end of the world.
And, of course, the end of the world is a real and present danger. Truly.
Putting aside the threat of nuclear Armageddon or environmental ruin, we all live with the possibility that our personal worlds—our carefully constructed arrangements—could come crashing down, through illness, divorce, disaster, or shattered world-view.
That’s what had happened to the Jewish people at the time the Book of Revelation was written. The temple, the literal dwelling place of God on Earth, had been destroyed by the Romans. The unspeakable, the unthinkable had occurred. What could this possibly portend but the end of the world?
Many of us had that feeling after 9/11. Some had it after Obama was elected. Many of us may have it today. No, we’re not writing prophecy or joining cults, but how many times did you hear “the world is ending” or at least “what’s the world coming to” in the wake of 9/11? There’s a feeling that the center cannot hold. And honestly? It may not. Life goes on, but life as we know it is a fragile thing, at both the macro and micro levels.
Would living out the end of the world in ritual and song help us process this hard fact? Does our pop culture version of end-of-the-world observation do that for us already? When we fantasize about it, do we learn something about how to prevent our personal armageddons? How to cope if they happen? How to better live our lives here and now in the knowledge that they could come?
If we participated more self-consciously and purposefully in Armageddon ritual, would that help more?
The liturgical calendar has months of “ordinary time” between Pentecost and Advent. Maybe we should toss the Apocalypse in there. I suggest the third Sunday in July, since that’s when man first landed on the Moon. It was widely heralded as a sign of impending doom, and it certainly accompanied a radical change in the way the world operates.