We had driven 60 some kilometres out from the island town of Flores, Guatemala, in Lake Peten Itza to the ancient site of what had been one of the largest and most powerful city states of the Classic Period Maya: Tikal.
Then, over 40 years ago, many of the ruins of the city still resembled hillocks densely covered by the verdant foliage of the Peten jungle. The reclaimed 47-metre-high Temple of the Great Jaguar, however, stood out.
A steep stairway led up to its three-chambered sanctuary. It likely was visited only by Mayan priests and their acolytes 1,300 years ago. A massive roof comb that tops the structure adds to the awe that the common people then must have felt looking up at it from the plaza below. It is certainly what I felt upon seeing it. Possibly from atop this or another of the many pyramids there the Mayan priests painstakingly watched the night sky and recorded celestial passages particularly of the sun, moon and Venus which blended into their unique cycle calendar.
The 52-year Short Count cycle linked their 260 day and 365 day calendars. I recall hearing the description of the religious rituals conducted at the end of this cycle. All fires had to be extinguished, then with prayers and invocations rekindled. From a temple top the sacred fire spread household to household marking the beginning of a new count. Whether this was the fancy of a contemporary anthropologist or not I can’t recall but it highlights the death-rebirth imagery in Mayan mythological lore and the need for offerings and supplications to sustain an always tenuous existence.
Prayers, however, were not enough. Some scholars attribute the end of the Classic Era Mayan to overpopulation, which triggered an agricultural collapse on an environmentally overstressed land base. Other see this fall as compounded by incessant warfare. Whatever the combination of causes by 900 A.D. only remnants persisted but four centuries later they re-emerged in Post-Classic Mayan city states like Mayapan on the Yucatan peninsula.
By the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th-century, however, they again had slipped into societal decay. Mayan people persisted, though. Surviving oppression and exploitation under colonial regimes then hostile national governments for five centuries the Mayan spirit has not been extinguished. They were marginalized, poor and embattled. I witnessed their resilience in the face of adversity while serving as a human rights observer in 1997 in the Mayan Tzotzil-speaking, Zapatista community of La Garrucha on the edge of the Lacandona rainforest in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
In the face of what seemed to be overwhelming adversity they were not giving up. They organized, formed resistance communities and took their development into their own hands. This is not a people who would put up with apocalyptic nonsense. If you are reading this far into the column more than likely you are not either.
The Judeo- Christian tradition along with the Mayan is rich in prophetic visions. Early in the Gospel of Luke, before the Christmas narrative begins, its author has Mary, the young woman from Nazareth, sing what became one of the most ancient Christian hymns ‘The Magnificat’ or Song of Mary. In part it intones “The Almighty works marvels for me. Holy is his name! His mercy is from age to age, on those who fear him. He puts forth his arm in strength and scatters the proud-hearted. He casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly. He fills the starving with good things and sends the rich away empty.”
This tradition heralds peace on Earth. We can work today to make that vision a reality. A peace-filled Christmas and 2013 to all!
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact email@example.com.