When did the apocalypse become a punchline? Some of us laugh at those silly old Mayans because we're enlightened, modern people who don't see any particular evidence that the world might be coming to an end, at least not in a sudden cataclysm. Rising oceans, nuclear radiation, cancer -- OK, all of that might kill us off slowly -- or we might kill one another to get our hands on increasingly scarce resources. But the Son of God returning in the clouds? Armageddon? How could we ever see it coming? How could we ever prepare for it? Ancient apocalyptic prophecies, whether from Mexico or Palestine, sound more and more like Tolkien fantasies.
On the other hand, some of us laugh at end-of-the-world predictions for a different reason. We see this world as a very, very broken place, and we want to see it remade. We hope for Resurrection, for Redemption, for this weary world to be renewed. I've heard singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens say he makes music about the apocalypse. It's not frightened or despairing music: It's hopeful music, because the end of this world is something to wonder at, not strictly to fear. Stevens' song "All the Trees of the Field" anticipates the day when nature itself -- now plagued by global warming and deforestation and mountain-top removal and, as we've seen in recent days, violent mental illness -- will sing the praise of the Creator. "The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands," wrote the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.
If you have that kind of hope, then the only thing funny about the apocalypse is the idea that anyone could predict when it might happen. "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father," Jesus told his disciples.
So we can laugh about the Mayans today, on Dec. 21, 2012, but billions of us are going to celebrate Christmas in four days. If Christmas is about anything, it's about the hope that God has come to earth to save us. Maybe we can't take that seriously because we're afraid we might not take part in that salvation. Street-preachers have been telling us for centuries that the end is near, and we'd better repent. I don't know about you, but if God were going to remake the world in perfection, I'm not sure God would want me in it. I'm proud, stubborn, petty, selfish. I say mean things to my wife, my children and my friends. I'm not sure any amount of repentence would make me worthy of a New Creation. Sufjan lyricized Isaiah's poem like this: "And I heard from the trees a great parade//And I heard from the hills a band was made//And will I be invited to the sound?//Will I be a part of what you've made?" I suspect some of us joke because, like Sufjan, we're afraid we won't make the cut. It's like an old friend used to say, "We've got to laugh to keep from cryin'."
Well, you know what? I don't want to laugh the mocking, cynical laugh of the modern age. I'd rather laugh the laughter of that little baby in the manger, who would grow up and stand in Israel's Temple and promise "good news to the poor ... freedom for the prisoners ... sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." I don't know if God will remake the world like Jesus promised, and I don't know if I'll be a part of it. But I hope so. I want to be the kind of person who awaits the end of the world like a little kid waits for Santa Claus. I want to hug my Nanny again. I want those bereaved parents in Newtown to be able to hug their little ones again. That's what the apocalypse means to me.