Christmas and Climate Change

Author: Antonio Pernia, SVD
Subject: Integrity of Creation
Language: English, Spanish
Publisher: Arnoldus Nota, December-January
Year: 2010

The gospel reading for the Midnight Mass at Christmas (Lk 2:1-14) does not say it explicitly. It only insinuates it – that is, that at the birth on earth of the Son of God, also nature or the physical world rejoiced and exulted. During that night in Bethlehem, the air was cool and the stars were shining brightly in the skies. It was a great time to be out in the open fields. Some shepherds, indeed, brought out their sheep to graze and kept watch the whole night. And then “The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them …. And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’” The night of Jesus’ birth was a night of celebration. Everyone was in joyful celebration – the angels, the shepherds, the stars, the earth – indeed, all of nature rejoiced at the coming on earth of the Son of God.

Thus, in fact, had the prophet Isaiah prophesied. In Advent we read and listened to this prophecy:

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song …. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water; The abode where jackals lurk will be a marsh for the reed and papyrus (Is 35:1-7).

Isaiah’s vision gives us an impression that the birth of the Son of God is not just a human or historical event. It is also a cosmic event. It has consequences not only on the life of human beings or on the history of humankind, but also on the well-being of nature or the physical world. No wonder, indeed, that at the birth of Son of God, nature itself sings and celebrates, rejoices and exults.

But also in Advent this year, in the beautiful Danish city of Copenhagen, representatives from various countries of the world gathered in an international conference organized by the United Nations to discuss and take appropriate action on a different kind of prophecy – that is, the predictions arising from the conclusions of the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). As is well known already, the report underlines the continuing and increasing warming of the earth due to the unabated emission of greenhouse gases. This global warming will lead to the widespread melting of glaciers and the rising of the global sea level, causing thereby disastrous floodings on the one hand and severe droughts on the other. All this puts in grave danger the ecological balance of the earth and the health of human beings. Other dire consequences of climate change are, for instance, the loss of bio-diversity, the erosion of seacoasts and shorelines, the extinction of species of flora and fauna, the reduction of the availability of water, the decrease in agricultural productivity, the increase of natural forest fires.

But above all, what causes profound concern is the conclusion that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that its first effects are already being felt now in our time. Moreover, it is said that, if nothing is done now, in 50 to 70 years the effects will be even more disastrous and will begin to be irreversible.

All this paints a picture very much different from that which we saw in the prophecy of Isaiah. I believe Christmas is a good time for us to reflect on what is generally considered as the most serious problem facing humanity in our time because the cosmic dimension is an integral dimension of Christmas. When nature loses its capacity to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, then something essential is lost to Christmas. When nature no longer sings and rejoices at the coming of Lord, our celebration of Christmas is no longer complete. Christmas, indeed, is a reason for us to respect and take care of nature, the environment, or our physical world. Two considerations:

First, the sacramental character of creation. From the moment that the Word of God became flesh, everything is changed. The environment is no longer purely natural; the world is no longer only secular; nature is no longer merely profane. Everything is transformed. Now everything – the environment, the world, nature – possesses a certain dimension that allows it reveal God, a certain depth that allows it to communicate the divine. Because the Son of God is born among us, the world has become a sacrament which reveals the divine, nature has become a sign and instrument of union with God, the environment has become a means of leading people to God. Coming from the hands of the Creator God, creation is already sacred. But, with Christmas, it becomes even more sacred, because the Son of God is born and becomes flesh among us.

Second, world peace as a fundamental aspect of Christmas. Pope Benedict XVI adverts to this “most serious problem of our age” in his message for the World Day of Peace 2008. The theme of his message was “The Human Family, the Community of Peace”. If the human family is to achieve peace, it must mirror the natural family which is “an intimate communion of life and love”. And just as the natural family needs a home, so does the human family:

The family needs a home, a fit environment in which to develop its proper relationships. For the human family, this home is the earth, the environment that God the Creator has given us to inhabit with creativity and responsibility. We need to care for the environment: it has been entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom, with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion …. Respecting the environment … means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits …. it means being committed to making joint decisions … aimed at strengthening that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying (#7).

Endangering the earth is endangering human family’s home. Endangering the human family as an “intimate community of life and love” is endangering peace in the world. It is emptying Christmas of one of its fundamental aspects – peace on earth, goodwill to men and women, glory to God.

Dear confreres, very often we are tempted to think that this “most serious problem of our time” does not concern us or our small communities, and that it concerns only the big and the powerful – heads of state, prime ministers, big industries, multinational corporations. But our lifestyle does have consequences on the environment. We are therefore called to lead lifestyles which are simpler, more sustainable and more friendly to the environment. For instance, “Livesimply” is an organization in England which believes that “God calls us to look hard at our lifestyles and to choose to live simply, sustainably and in solidarity with people who are poor”. See www.cafod.org.uk/livesimply.

This coming Christmas, as we adore the Child Jesus lying in the manger in Bethlehem, in the company of Mary and Joseph, we may still hear nature sing and celebrate the birth of the Son of God. The air may still be cool, the stars may still shine brightly, the shepherds may still come in haste, and the angels may still sing joyfully. But already there are signs that this may no longer be so in the future. And what if nature no longer sings at Christmas?

This Christmas let us thank God for this immense gift of His Son born among us and for the great gift of nature which celebrates His coming in the flesh. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” May the UN Conference in Copenhagen be successful in bringing about an effective agreement among nations to reduce global warming, control climate change, and assist the poor who are the first victims of this “most serious problem of our time”. May the New Year 2010 see greater efforts world-wide towards the care of the earth, justice for the poor, and peace in the world. A blessed Christmas and happy New Year to you all!

Published in Arnoldus Nota, December-January 2010

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