Saturday, December 8, 2012

Second Sunday of Advent

It seems as if just about everywhere these days people are speaking about the environment. We hear about the effect of global warming, the melting of glaciers and the polar ice cap, and the potential of vast flooding in low-lying coastal regions, leading to the displacement of millions of people. We hear about the need for sustainable development, to prevent our using the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished. We hear about the need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels which emit greenhouse gasses, depleting the atmosphere’s ozone layer. And we hear about the negative impact that industrial and agricultural waste has on the air we breath, the water we drink, and the wildlife with which we share the earth. For instance, it’s been reported that in the Potomac River, male fish were found to be carrying eggs- a possible mutation caused by pollution.

Concern for the environment is important to Christians of all stripes. Evangelical Christians are increasingly vocal about this issue, breaking out of their mold of being focused primarily on issues of marriage and sexuality; mainline protestant Christians have been championing environmental issues for some time; and our own Catholic Church identifies "care for the environment" as one of the core principles of Catholic social teaching. The bishops of our nation have issued many statements on this topic and have encouraged our nations’ leaders to make it a top priority. Pope John Paul II wrote passionately about environmental issues. And it was he who named St. Francis of Assisi, who cherished all of God’s creation, as the patron saint of ecology.

Christians’ concern and care for the environment is a topic which I think is suggested by today’s Scripture readings. The first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, speaks of mountains being leveled and valleys being filled. Originally, this was a call for people to prepare a highway to welcome the coming of God’s anointed king. We Christians have come to understand it as a call for us to prepare for the coming of Jesus, which is why it is always read during this season of Advent. But at another level, this passage speaks of people manipulating the natural environment- mountains and valleys- in a way that is explicitly motivated by their faith. And it challenges us to think about how our faith today might affect our approach to, and use of, the environment we all share.

Catholic teaching on this topic reminds us that we should care for God’s creation because it is his gift to us. God intends creation to be of benefit for everyone, which means we need to think about the impact our use of it has on people beside ourselves, and we need to be especially sensitive to the needs of future generations. Practically speaking, this means that we need to radically change or even stop some of the things we’re currently doing. In his 1990 statement, Peace with all Creation, Pope John Paul II said, "Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past…"

To reassess and change our ways of using the environment is one way to answer the call to repent issued by St. John the Baptist in today’s gospel. We need to examine our conscience and truly undergo a conversion because, to again quote John Paul II, "the ecological crisis is a moral issue." Now, I’ve been hearing confessions for some time. And I can honestly say that in confession I’ve never heard anyone say, "Bless me Father, for I have sinned: I left the water running while brushing my teeth;" or "I tossed my soda bottles in the trash instead of the recycling bin;" or "I dumped my old motor oil down the sewer." But maybe it’s time for us to start thinking along these lines.

What can we actually do, however, to change our approach to the environment? Statements issued by our nation’s bishops suggest many things. First of all, at election time we should carefully consider a politician’s stand and record on environmental issues before casting our vote, and we can advocate for environmental issues with our nation’s lawmakers, especially those concerning global climate change, energy conservation, the development of renewable and clean energy resources, and the promotion of healthy economic development in poorer countries.

Other things we can do as suggested by our bishops are concerned with our lifestyles and the day-to-day choices we make as consumers, workers, investors, and citizens. For instance, we can plant trees or a vegetable garden; limit our use of cleaning products with toxic chemicals; and buy more organic foods which weren’t produced with dangerous chemical fertilizers and pesticides. We can reduce, reuse, and recycle, and make sure we properly dispose of items that shouldn’t wind up in a standard landfill like batteries or old computers or electronics. We can turn out the lights, turn down the thermostat, turn off the water faucet, and turn on the dishwasher only when it’s full. We can do more laundry in cold instead of warm or hot. We can take Metro, car-pool, ride a bike, or even walk instead of driving everywhere we go. We can take part in a community litter clean-up effort. And, through our purchases and investments, we can encourage businesses to develop products and services that respect creation instead of exploiting it, making better use of the earth’s resources in the process. On a personal note, I have to say that I hope to be first in line later this decade when the first fuel cell cars- those that run on hydrogen and produce only water- come rolling off the assembly lines and into showrooms.

There’s an old saying that "the earth can provide for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed." Perhaps that’s the way that God designed it way back when. It’s certainly what he wants to be our guiding principle today.

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