Mayans and Finals and Prayers, Oh My!
“I can’t wait for this week to be over,” a forlorn student in my New Testament Greek class told me, “It feels like the end of the world.” It is an understandable outburst for a modern-day teenager who has just been dragged from zero to Greek perfect passive in three and a half months. I sympathize. I can’t wait for next week to be over, when I have sifted through the stacks of paper and have my bi-annual existential crisis about whether I really teach anyone anything at all, or if the A’s or F’s would have been the same with any other instructor.
Bottom line, the end of a semester forces us to examine and be examined, to ponder the purpose of things. Maybe that’s why it feels like the end of the world.
People are starting to stockpile stuff, frightened by the umpteenth end of the world prophecy. The Mayan calendar runs out this month on December 21st (only to start another long cycle of years, apparently) and people are getting spooked. I have always wondered why the end of the world makes us want to stockpile things. My only precautionary measure for the Mayan apocalypse will be a repeat of my Y2K preparations: make sure my credit cards are maxed out. Then again, that tends to happen in December anyway.
I had a great Latin teacher in high school: Fr. Paul Callahan, SJ. He is a huge part of why I love classics and am a teacher. Whenever I was nervous before a test, he would say, “Don’t worry. After all, you’ve been doing your work faithfully from day to day, with a weekly review…” and then cast that Irish wink my way. I can’t help thinking that’s exactly what God is doing to us these days.
Advent is a time of preparation for Christ’s coming at Christmas. There are special graces in store for us. But it is also a time for us to continue the meditation of the end of the liturgical year, those last weeks before Christ the King when the Gospel spoke of prophecies about the end of the world. We have to ask ourselves the same question that a student asks before a big exam: Am I ready? Have I done enough?
John the Baptist, who made his big Advent entrance this past Sunday, is the TA who gives us a wakeup call and who is available to help us cram. He preaches a baptism of repentance. Stop doing what doesn’t help you on the final; start doing what does. He yells and calls us names, like brood of vipers, and, -let’s admit it- we deserve it for slacking.
There is always time before the test to put in that last all-nighter. But, of course, it’s best to have done your work faithfully, from day to day, with a weekly review session (Sunday mass, anyone?) The important thing is to get as prepared as you can. So some stockpiling is in order, but of the spiritual variety: prayer and the good works of repentance.
The real final exam, the last judgment, is a pop quiz. We know neither the day nor the hour. So it is a great idea to get help from people who have passed the course. The calendar (not the Mayan one, the Catholic one!) abounds with saints.
A week before the end of the world this year is December 14th, when we celebrate St. John of the Cross. In my office I have a copy of a handwritten note of his. It says “Te examinarán en el amor. They will examine you on love.” Now that is the ultimate cheat sheet.
One last anecdote in this ramble. America is a great country, one in which someone can get rich selling motivational posters. One can even get rich selling anti-motivational posters as well. Despair.com does just that. Their posters are monuments of sarcasm and cynicism. (Oh, there are days when I really need that.)
One such poster features the steep stairway of a Mayan (or Aztec) pyramid, and the message says “Sacrifice: All we ask here is that you give us your heart.” The implications for climbing the corporate ladder are eerily chilling.
And yet, that is precisely what St. John the Baptist, St. John of the Cross and the liturgy of Advent are reminding us about. Do we have the habit of giving our heart to God, of sacrificing our wants and whims, and putting his will first in our lives?
The final exam will be a pop quiz. So this is a habit we must acquire as soon as possible, to be confident and not jittery as the exam approaches. But I wouldn’t worry. After all, you’ve been doing a conscience exam faithfully from day to day, with a weekly review at Sunday Mass.