(Originally published June 21, 2007)
While the traffic can be hellish, Interstate 83 isn't quite the end of the world.
But off the highway's southbound lanes east of York, an ice-blue sign advertises God's second coming, alluding to biblical prophesies about the end times.
"Pray Together with Millions for the Lord's Return on July 7th, 2007," the billboard reads.
In the blue print graphic, the number 777 is set against a star in the background.
In the opposite corner, a photo of a male lion is labeled the Man Child Team -- a reference to Revelation chapter 12 and the "man child" (Jesus) born in heaven to rule the nations with an iron scepter.
"My goal is to help prepare the world for him to come," said Michael Meraklis, 50, of Manchester Township who charged $8,000 on a credit card to rent the space for two months.
"I want them to just start praying about it."
Meraklis' billboard is part of a growing enthusiasm for July 7 (often written 07/07/07).
Depending on who you talk to, July 7 could be a lucky day, a holy day or an every day.
Those hoping for luck might be among the thousands planning their nuptials for the day. At the TheKnot.com wedding-planning community, more than 38,000 unions are scheduled for July 7 -- compared with the usual 12,000 on a Saturday in July.
Others, like Meraklis, expect July 7 to be a blessed day, believing 777 is God's favorite number or pointing to instances where the Bible or tradition refer to the number seven.
God rested on the seventh day. The New Testament book of Revelation says seven angels will sound the trumpet prior to the second coming of Jesus.
The Roman Catholic Church counts seven sacraments. In the Hebrew lunar calendar, a jubilee year was to be observed every seventh cycle of seven years.
Buddha is said to have taken seven steps at birth, and Japanese mythology speaks of seven lucky gods.
Christian-organized events are planned for July 7 in Washington, D.C.; Green Bay, Wis.; near Bakersfield, Calif.; in Toronto and Moscow. Christian acts will perform at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif., and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Two churches -- Believers Tabernacle of Faith in York and a Baltimore church -- are planning a Christian conference July 7 at the York Expo Center's Toyota Arena.
"Biblically, seven is the number of being complete," said conference organizer Tammy Bradford of John Wesley AME Church in Baltimore.
At the Tennessee Titans' stadium in Nashville, Tenn., more than 100,000 are expected for The Call, a solemn assembly for a day of fasting, repentance and praying to reverse the influence of the sexual revolution.
Julia Richardson, The Call's publicist, said the date was chosen through prayer.
"As (the leaders) were praying, the number 777 kept on coming up," Richardson said.
Meraklis, a printer technician for IKON Office Solutions, tells a similar story of how 777 came to him: "It just hit my heart somehow."
He always believed there should be a day for God. Then his wife, Cynthia, mentioned a TV news report describing July 7, 2007, as a highly prized wedding date.
With this in mind, Meraklis started praying. He set up a Web site, purchased Google ads and the billboard space on I-83.
"It's a one-shot thing. It won't come again for 1,000 years," he explained. "I tell them to pray on 777."
Meraklis said he's not actively involved with any church. He isn't into astrology, numerology or Bible decoding. He describes himself as a Catholic and a Mormon.
"I want to make it real clear this is not any prediction that anything is going to happen on this day," Meraklis said.
"This is a day to prepare the world for Jesus. Not to see him come."
Greg Carey, a New Testament scholar at Lancaster Theological Seminary, confirmed that seven is a big number in the Bible.
But so are three and 10.
"I don't remember anything like this happening on March 3, 2003," said Carey, author of "Elusive Apocalypse: Reading Authority in the Revelation to John."
"07-07-07 looks cool, but it's really 07-07-2007. The way we mark off years postdates the Bible."
That is, today's modern calendar would have been meaningless to the authors of Scripture.
"From a religious studies point of view, what is really going on here is superstition. Are there lucky days like 777 or ominous days like 666?" Carey said.
People are trying to make sense of a confusing world, so that things might make more sense, he suggested.
"How can you criticize a day of prayer?" Carey said.
"I would applaud anyone who seeks to encourage folks to pray."
One kink in Meraklis' plan is that the billboard is likely to come down before July 7.
According to Thomas Loper, general manager of Lamar Advertising in Hellam Township, Meraklis' contract expires June 30. An ad for Apple Nissan is scheduled to go up around July 1.
WORLDLY OCCURANCES OF 777
A triple seven is a winning combination on slot machines.
The Boeing 777 is a commercial jet that seats 368 passengers.
777 is the name used in the U.S. by System 7, a British ambient techno music band.
777 is equal to 3 x 7 x 37.
A collection of writings by British occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) are published in "777 and other Qabalistic writings."
ON THE WEB
Pray on 777, www.prayon777.com
The Call Nashville, www.thecall.com
Together One Unity, togetheroneunity.org/default.aspx
Leap of Faith Lambeau, www.leapoffaithlambeau.org
Moscow Day Parade, www.moscowday.com/index.files/moscowdaycom1.htm