Fourth Sunday of Advent
Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25) tells the extraordinary story not only of Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus, but of Joseph’s reaction to the news. Mary's becoming pregnant while she was engaged to Joseph was not what he had expected. His righteous response, shielding Mary from public disgrace, was evidently enough out of the ordinary to warrant comment from Matthew. Then the most unexpected piece of Joseph’s story is revealed: in a dream, an angel speaks to him, and when he wakes up, Joseph does as the angel commanded him. Nothing in the story is what we would expect; nothing is customary.
The nativity story is Good News; it’s a story of something new and different, a story of new life coming into the world on a very deep level.
Despite our celebration of the birth of Jesus, we tend to cling to traditions, especially Christmas traditions. Every year, self-help writers encourage people to let go of customs or traditions that have become burdensome in some ways – a big holiday dinner or party, for example, that has become more work and expense than the hosts can bear -- and try something new that is more life-giving.
Thinking about our environmental footprint at Christmas involves thinking about our traditions. Choices about which gifts to buy, how (or whether) to wrap them, travel plans, food, and decorations all involve examining customs or traditions and considering changing them because we want something that matters more to us: a sustainable future, life itself.
The environmental challenges we face year-round call for us to examine our daily customs and traditions, our entire way of life, and find other ways to live that make new life possible. They call for us to let go of things that have become burdensome to all living things and try something new that is more life-giving. They call us to move from traditions on the level of familiar customs to traditions on the level of our most essential values.
A Climate Vulnerability Monitor report released earlier this month by DARA (Development Assistance Research Associates) analyzes the effects on various nations and peoples as the earth’s climate changes. (The summary of findings and recommendation from this report, found here, is very readable and provides a wealth of information.) One of the intents of the report is to lay out what’s at stake as we make decisions for the future. It provides the facts so we can make decisions about how to live. Standing on their own, the facts are grim, but the document also provides reason for hope, laying out how we might alleviate some of the suffering caused by climate change. Relatively simple things can address what the report says are now the primary causes of deaths related to climate change: malnutrition, diarrheal infections, and malaria.
During Advent, the lectionary reminds us of the prophetic message of justice for God’s people and restoration of the land. As the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change met in Cancun during Advent, there was some progress made, including establishment of a Green Fund to help developing countries deal with the effects of climate change, and agreement on the frameworks for taking on the big question of how to reduce world-wide emissions of greenhouse gases. The lack of progress at Copenhagen a year ago coupled with the low expectations for the Cancun meeting led many to assess the meeting as a success.
Doing something is preferable to doing nothing, and making progress is something to celebrate, but it isn’t necessarily justice, especially not justice as described by the prophets. What counts as a success in the political world, or what we might see as a success because it gives some small glimmer of hope in the darkness, isn’t success by the standards of the prophets.
Perhaps no convention or treaty or political action can accomplish what the prophets call us to do: change our behavior so deeply that the earth, worn down like the poor by our greed and selfishness, can be renewed and restored. These sorts of deep changes have an essential spiritual component that only our most profound traditions provide. These sorts of deep changes are embedded in the story of the birth of Jesus, the story we prepare to celebrate this week. If we stop and listen to Matthew’s account of the birth, letting the story really sink in, we may find our hearts prepared to embrace those deep changes with gladness. We may find Good News, a story of new life coming into the world on a very deep level.