The sea stars are dying, and awareness of the plight of the animals we less accurately but more commonly call “starfish” is growing just as we begin the Advent season.
With many Christmas decorations up even before Thanksgiving, Christmas stars are all around us as Advent begins. In our liturgical year, though, the Christmas star won’t appear until The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), when we hear the story (in Matthew 2:1-12) about the wise men following the star to Bethlehem to find the new King.
Our Advent readings are about waiting and watching, and they have much to teach us about how to be faithful in this century when our greatest collective challenges are climate change and its effects along with other environmental challenges. Surely an awareness of what is happening to Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and ecosystems is an essential part of discipleship if we are continue to be the Body of Christ in this century’s world.
The plan for this First Sunday of Advent reflection was to elaborate on how we might watch and wait and witness to what is happening. But awareness of the new sign of the dying sea stars calls for a slightly different reflection this week. These stars call us to pay attention now, to care now, to speak and act, to bear witness, now.
The Washington Post reported on November 22 that Sea stars are wasting away in larger numbers on a wider scale in two oceans. This article says that neither the cause nor the probably impact on ecosystems is known. Cornell University Professor Drew Harvell, who studies marine diseases, says that events like this are “sentinels of change” and need our attention. On November 5, Time magazine published an article about the sea stars called Falling Stars: Starfish Dying from ‘Disintegrating’ Disease. This article emphasizes how unusual it is to have more than one species of sea star affected and to be seeing this disease over a wide geographic area, with one scientist saying that it looks like “millions and millions” of starfish might be affected.
And what does any of this have to do with Advent or the church? The dying of the sea stars seems to be another one of those environmental events in recent years that has never been seen before on this scale. Whether the cause is related to pollution, ocean acidification or warming, radiation, or some other cause, whatever affects these living things affects us all. We are called to care for one another, to love one another, and so we care for human life and for the lives of all the other living things with whom we share this planet.
The church is also in the business of wonder, especially as we go through Advent in preparation for Christmas. The loss of sea stars is a loss of a source of wonder and joy, surely a concern for Christians who are about to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation.
What can we do about it? What can Christians who live far from the ocean and have no training in marine biology or ecology do? We can witness. We can pay attention, ask questions, talk about it, write about it. We can learn more about it and see what connection this might have to our own habits of consumption or activity, and then figure out what changes we might make in our own lives or our collective life. We can care enough to carry an awareness of the death of the sea stars with us, to pray for our oceans and the creatures who live there, to be conscious. We can talk about this and other seldom mentioned environmental concerns in meetings, in sermons, at social gatherings.
Perhaps most importantly, we can follow the exhortation found in both the Epistle and Gospel lessons for Advent 1 and be awake. There is a lot going on this time of year to lull us to a sort of half-sleep. Consumerism is hyped up, there are all sorts of entertainments from special sports events to movies and television specials and parties, and the dark and cold make all of these things an easy focus for us. Presents and entertainment are all fine so long as we can stay awake. Staying awake when the world calls us to numb ourselves to what is happening is the spiritual challenge of Advent.
The sign of the sea star this Advent can lead us to better follow the Epiphany star that is a sign of Christ’s manifestation to the whole world. If we keep the sea stars in mind, we may be better prepared to be the Body of Christ in today’s world.