The Nativity of Jesus Christ and the Anthropocene
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:1–2)
The famous existentialist Martin Heidegger suggests we all arrive into history, a world we did not choose. We all arrive midway in a story, in a family, a community, a world, a story that began before we arrived.
The universe is filled with stories — it is a story itself, after all. What was the story before it began and where is it headed? what’s the ending? We are not afforded an opportunity to read the last chapter, however, like a quick peek at the final pages of that mystery novel stuffed into your Christmas stocking. But what thread, what promise, what hope, what desire leads our choices as we walk wet in the ink of the story unfolding.
Whether we care to acknowledge it or not — there is a narrative to which we belong, a set of opportunities, choices, gifts, barriers, assumptions, a world view, layers of norms, values, customs, even ritual that we did not choose — we arrive into history”: a curse, or a blessed gift depending on our point of view.
But we can choose how to live into our story. Do we belong to a cosmos of absolute randomness and chance? Are we here as a complete mathematical equation of meaningless random conditions — if so, then, lets not fool ourselves, whoever dies with the most stuff wins! Or does the experience of consciousness, of longing, the witness of new life, the encounter of love, invite us to at least wonder if there is a greater horizon under which we live, a thread woven into the pulsing heart of life itself, a future destination, a mystery calling us. Is there a something true? Is there something good?
We don’t choose the world we are born into, but we can choose how to navigate the one we are given.
And what of these tremendous stories we belong to?
Consider the beautiful story of the creation of our earth, well after the Big Bang, some 4.5 billion years ago. We were nothing but a mass of dust and gas; the Hadean period, followed by the Archean period, some 3 billion years ago when photosynthesis began. Jump to short 380 million years ago when the first vertabraed animals crawled out of the dust. Finally, to the end of the last ice age a mere 11,700 years ago known as the Holocene epoch.
Imagine, we human beings have flourished on earth as recipients of the gift of life and abundance. We have blossomed with amazing resilience. Consider the technology, medical advancement and improvement in quality of life, the decrease in world poverty and violence within even the last 75 years. The gift and promise of life on earth has nourished and we have blossomed.
But this Geological era, has come to a close, and with the first experiments of nuclear explosions beginning in 1945, scientists are now ready to name a new era, a new chapter in our Earth story. We belong to the anthropocene.
Anthropocene, defined as: the proposed current geological epoch, in which humans are the primary cause of permanent planetary change. According to the Anthropocene Project,
we have reached an unprecedented moment in planetary history. Humans now arguably change the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined. Climate change, extinctions, invasive species, technofossils, anthroturbation, terraforming of land, and redirection of water are all part of the indelible human signature.
“Tens of billions of tons of concrete are part of that signature,” argues Andrew C. Revkin, “along with vast amounts of smelted aluminum and more exotic alloys, distinctive spherical particles of fly ash from power plants, bomb radioisotopes, 6 billion tons (and counting) of plastic, and so much more.” Not to mention the strain on human populations as they compete and potentially engage in devastating conflict for access to natural resources such as water, energy sources, and protein.
What an amazing story. A story that tells us, the now dominant actors: it is up to us. Will our story end as another extinction, a self imploding planet, a blip in the vast story of the universe? We are given the promise and the gift of a world filled with beauty and capacity to sustain our every need, should we choose to accept it. A story that asks something of us, a sacred, even, responsibility.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined“ (Isaiah 9:2).When we gather on the Holy eve of Christmas, we gather to participate in another great story, another great promise, a gift offered: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah, 9:6).
Imagine, the creator of all things arriving, not with a mighty sword to set us straight, but he comes as a helpless baby, a “suckling lamb” as David Bentley Hart translates. A baby dependant on his mother, his father, his family, his community — after all, it takes a whole village to raise a child. Yes, God arrives as a great gift in our midst, a gift that calls for our tender love and care — indeed, a most sacred responsibility.
Augustus is no longer the emperor, nor is Quirinius governor of Syria, nor are we simply passengers on planet earth. But once again we are given the great promise, a tremendous gift. What do we do with story we are given? Do we go home, business as usual and come back next year to see if he is still here? Or do we take him home into our hearts, into our families, into our communities. What a tremendous gift, that we will not comprehend, even as he hangs from a cross, or has shattered the tomb. Surely that is the mystery that lays before those who choose to follow.
We have the whole world in our care — a sacred responsibility. What is the next chapter of the story we have been given?