Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How Can This Be?

Fourth Week of Advent
The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke1:26-38, is also one of the readings in today’s Daily Office lectionary. This passage, the story of the Annunciation, bears repeating well! There is great mystery in this holy conversation between the angel Gabriel and Mary; there’s a mystery in the sense of knowledge beyond our capacity to reason in the beginning of the Incarnation, and there’s mystery in the sense of something we simply don’t know with certainty when we consider the different ways in which we might read Mary’s responses to Gabriel’s words.

Mary asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  This is sometimes interpreted as Mary asking a question about the mechanics of Jesus’ conception, but given the rest of the conversation, considering this a sort of “That’s interesting; how will this work?” question doesn’t quite fit. Perhaps it’s more of an exclamation of wonder. We ask/exclaim “How can this be?” when we see or experience all sorts of things we don’t understand. That exclamation doesn’t mean we necessarily expect to receive an answer, or even that we think an answer is possible. It means that we have met up with something we recognize as being beyond our comprehension. We might say “How can this be?” when we receive very joyful news or when we are taking in a landscape of exceptional beauty; we might also ask “How can this be?” when we receive bad news or witness a catastrophe.

People who write about climate science have been sharing recent news about methane bubbling up through the thawing permafrost in the Arctic, releasing into the atmosphere carbon that has been buried for 30,000 years. The thawing of the permafrost is the result of global warming; the effect of the methane being released is expected to be increased and accelerated warming. As noted in an article in the New York Times  about the scientists studying what is happening as the permafrost melts, “in the minds of most experts, the chief worry is not that the carbon in the permafrost will break down quickly… but that once the decomposition starts, it will be impossible to stop.”

In recent weeks, we have seen a report from the International Energy Agency telling us that we have five years to begin addressing climate change in a significant way before it becomes irreversible; we have seen the climate summit in Durban fail to put anything in place to do that work within the next five years; we have started becoming aware of the extent of the carbon being released as the permafrost melts. The past month we in the church have been observing Advent, preparing our hearts to meet Christ anew. As Christmas approaches, Christians who are aware of what is happening to our environment are preparing for our celebration of God coming to live among us while painfully aware of what we have done and continue to do to the world in which Christ was born. We have simultaneously the hope of Advent, the discouragement of knowing what is unfolding around us, and the despair of the silence that all too often is the reaction to this news.

A reflection by Christina Villa  published yesterday on the United Church of Christ website looks at those times when personal loss leads us to say with regret that Christmas “will be different this year”. For people who have been directly affected by the storms, floods, droughts, and fires associated with climate change, Christmas will indeed be different this year; for others of us, the simple awareness that the security of climate stability is ending gives a different feeling to Christmas this year. Christina Villa concludes that those years when loss or hardship makes Christmas feel different can be years when we understand something of the deeper meaning of Christmas:

Christmas is about the coming of love and light into the world, which we would not need to celebrate if life were free of loss and darkness.  That's what makes Christmas a serious holiday. It's not all tinsel and eggnog. Jesus, a messiah bringing love and light into the world, was also "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief," says Isaiah, putting it mildly. The serious mystery of Christmas is God's answer to the losses we accumulate, the best answer we have and the very one we need. 

I read about the melting permafrost and ask, “How can this be?” If this is a question about the mechanics of it all, scientists can give me the answer: The carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels has raised that earth’s temperature enough to allow the melting of the permafrost. But if it’s an exclamation to indicate that the full implication of what is unfolding is beyond my comprehension, then Christmas is exactly what I need. When we meet something like this, we don’t need Christmas as a pleasant distraction. (I suspect if we look to the celebration of Christmas as a pleasant distraction to get our minds off our worries, we will come up empty.) We do need Christmas as the answer, as the opportunity for a deep encounter with love and light in a world where we sometimes run into greed and darkness.

Mary put her trust in what God was doing even though she couldn’t understand the mystery of it all. Trusting God didn’t keep her from the sorrow of seeing her son on the cross, but it allowed her to witness the joy of Easter. Trusting God won’t keep us from the very real consequences of our actions, but it can help us walk through this with meaning and hope.