Homily for Sunday, December 23, 2018
His cheeks were fat—really fat! And if my memory serves, he was wearing a pint-sized red Hawaiian shirt out of whose short sleeves protruded stubby, roly-poly arms, with dimples so deep it looked as though there were rubber bands around his wrists. We have photos in an album somewhere of Shaw at about 6 months old at the monarch butterfly reserve just north of Santa Barbara on the California coast. He was 54th percentile for height, but 99th for weight, and friends would jokingly ask if the Cornhuskers’ coach had called yet. I remember butterflies alighting on him, on us, and on the eucalyptus trees. Swarms of butterflies; thousands of butterflies! But even then, the locals said, there were fewer than they remembered. But I recently read an article that makes me wonder if any remain at all.
Now, I knew about diminishing bird populations. Their diminishment has been in the news for years, and I could tell on my bicycle trip to Wisconsin last year that there were fewer birds there than when I was a kid—some mornings waking in my tent it was nearly silent, with only a few birds singing.1 And I knew about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a floating mass of plastic trash roughly four times the size of California between California and Hawaii. I knew about the increasing frequency of both torrential rains and droughts,2 and that due to climate change, the environment is likely to suffer more damage from floods, fires and crop failure, and that our economy is likely to shrink.3 I knew about the open water in the Arctic each summer and how the “feedback loop” of dark water absorbing sunlight means that the Arctic is now warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet.4 I knew about the wobble in the jet stream, which used to contain the Arctic air to the Arctic but now sends icy blasts south in winter and stalls weather patterns in summer.
I knew all this about climate change and its effects… But I didn’t know about the insects. “The Insect Apocalypse is Here,” a recent long-form piece in the New York Times Magazine, filled me in.
A German entomological study found that the mass of insects in German nature reserves has decreased 75% in less than 30 years. In France, the population of farmland birds has dropped 50% in the same time, and studies suggest that the birds have diminished, not because of habitat loss, but because they starved to death. In parts of China, the article reported, famers have hired humans to hand-pollinate their apple trees because bees have virtually disappeared. In Puerto Rico in the early 2010’s, one researcher put out the same number of sticky traps in the exact same locations in the jungle as he had placed them 40 years ago and discovered a 60-fold decrease in the number of insects caught. Not 60%, but 60-fold! His paper predicts “a bottom-up trophic cascade and consequent collapse of the forest food web,” a “trophic cascade” being “the unraveling of an ecosystem’s fabric as prey populations boom and crash and the various levels of the food web no longer keep each other in check.”
It’s not just insects. The Times article said that for mammals, too,
It is estimated that, since 1970, Earth’s various populations of wild land animals have lost, on average, 60 percent of their members. Zeroing in on the category we most relate to, mammals, scientists believe that for every six wild creatures that once ate and burrowed and raised young, only one remains. What we have instead is ourselves.
Circling back to butterflies, the article reports that in the past 20 years monarch butterfly populations have declined by 90%, a loss of 900 million butterflies. I knew that chubby cheeks were a thing of the past (and rightly so!). But I am dismayed to think that those clouds of butterflies are likely gone forever.
We all know about global warming and our human involvement in it. We all know how easy it is to ignore what scientists are saying, as well as how difficult it is to change our habits of consumption. But I wonder if we know that caring for our planet is a spiritual matter. Caring for our environment is a spiritual matter not only because caring for the environment is about stewardship, not only because caring for our environment is about our neighbors and those who come after us, and not only because caring for the planet is a matter of justice (the poor are likely to suffer most in a warming planet); caring for our environment is a spiritual matter because, ultimately, caring for our environment is possible only to the extent that we nurture our souls and attend to the transformation of our imaginations.
The degradation of our environment stands in marked contrast to the life abundant in today’s Gospel lesson, the story of Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth.
- Mary meets Elizabeth “in the hill country,” a place of animals and birds; vineyards, farms and orchards, and insects by the millions.
- “Set out and went with haste” presumably meant that Mary walked there; she experienced the flora and fauna first-hand.
- The two are kinswomen, and in their exchange we see a great depth of affection, a “lively” relationship.
- Elizabeth is older—perhaps she was a mentor-figure to Mary?
- Like Jane Austen’s Emma to Mrs. Weston, I wonder if Mary feels around Elizabeth “always interesting and always intelligible,” for Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months!
- Both are pregnant, and Elizabeth’s infant “leaped” in her womb.
- Mary sings of God’s mercy and faithfulness, about lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry.
- Mary’s song is so compelling that it is used daily in Evening Prayer, and hundreds of composers have set it to music.
- There are no men in this passage. This passage is all about feminine, motherly, life-giving energy.
This story of the Visitation is a veritable “symphony of life,” rife with images to nurture the soul and transform the imagination.
Many speak about our living in the “Anthropocene,” a world shaped by humans. But E. O. Wilson, the famous naturalist and now-retired Harvard professor, has suggested another name for our age: the “Eremocine,” the age of loneliness. Whether consciously or not, we humans through environmental degradation are gradually making ourselves more and more alone.
Maybe—if we wish to truly make a difference in our world—we can allow ourselves to be drawn to these two women and for our imaginations to be transformed. Mary and Elizabeth’s story reminds us of the fecundity of life on our planet. These women remind us of our responsibility to bring forth, nurture and care for life. They tell us of “home” and the importance of caring for “home” and making it hospitable for others. They remind us of our need for beauty. They remind us of our need for friendship. Above all, they remind us that we need not be alone. That we—like the Trinity who created us—were made for relationship. That charity—love for others—is the highest virtue. That because of Mary’s son—called “Emmanuel,” “God With Us”—we need not resign ourselves to living in an age of loneliness, but can always call upon one who has promised to be with us always, “even to the close of the age.”
Our Gospel story today is about the relationship of two women and birth and new life. I am going to leave us with a story about the relationship of two men and old age and death. Both are filled with love and care and nurture. Both are about souls and imaginations that have been transformed and are “proclaiming the greatness of the Lord.” Taken together, they remind us that, no matter how surrounded we may be by death, we are not alone, and with Christ there is always the possibility of life.
A Jesuit colleague tells how, when his dear friend (a fellow Jesuit) was near death, the friend would sit in the common room near the top of the stairs and press the “repeat” button on the remote to play again and again the opening measures of a setting of the Magnificat sung by King’s College choir. “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” the boys sang, “My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” Repeat.
“Getting’ ready,” he would say when my friend came to check in on him. Until one afternoon my friend opened the door at the top of the stairs and heard the boys’ voices soaring with the final lines: “Glory,”
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
And he knew that, having pressed “repeat” one final time, his friend had died.
I pray that as we are “gettin’ ready” to welcome Jesus, that we are not “gettin’ ready” to throw up our hands and give up and assume that our world is beyond saving. I pray that we are not “gettin’ ready” to continue to live our lives “as usual” while life on our planet diminishes and disappears. I pray, rather, that we are “gettin’ ready” to welcome the one who alone is able to save—who is rich in mercy, who loves us, who brings peace, who breaks down walls, who makes strangers and aliens into citizens, who casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly, who raises the dead, who raises fat-cheeked babies into fine young men, who is the God of butterflies, who is “God with us” so that we need not live in loneliness—I pray that we are “gettin’ ready” to welcome him so that, when this world does finally end and he comes again in glory to be our judge, we, too, will be found, not in an age of loneliness, but having been transformed into his likeness, and together singing “Glory:”
…to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
1. See, e.g., the 2016 study by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 432 of the 1,154 North American bird species are on their list for “Urgent Conservation Action” needed.
2. E.g., Bulletin of American Meteorological Science, December 10, 2018.
3. United States Global Change Research Program, Fourth National Climate Assessment, released November, 2018.
4. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Arctic Report Card.