Advent is renowned as the buying season, the time for end of year parties, and exuberant feasting and imbibing… if you can afford it. Advent is the time when non-religious Christmas carols blare out from every shop and non-religious Christmas symbols festoon the streets. It is the time when children wait for presents, employees wait for holidays, and some wait for it all to be over. It is a time of stress – for some monetarily, for some in the expectation of family get-togethers, for some in the flood of powerful and grief-producing memories that come with Christmas.
The biblical Advent has little to do with our cultural appropriation of Christmas. Rather the anticipation of Advent is the deep longing for justice. It is the deep longing for an end to poverty, abuse, isolation, enmity and despair. It is the deep longing for help and healing.
The hymns and readings of Advent speak of destruction and pain, and the hope of a divine rescuer swooping in from somewhere above the clouds. This rescuer will sort out the good from the bad, the “wheat from the chaff”, rewarding the former and barbequing the latter. The super saviour has long been the hope of communities weighed down and oppressed by savage governments.
While destruction, pain, and oppression are unfortunately a part of our global reality, a spaceman saviour is not. We know that, despite our wishes and projections, hope doesn’t come from off the planet. Hope has to be found in our here and now. It has to be worked for, discovered, and developed. And in the working for this here-and-now hope God can be glimpsed.
Our reading today from Luke, in talking about end-times judgement, uses a botanical metaphor [a fig tree sprouting leaves]. I think in this 21st century a better botanical metaphor is that of befriending our planet by watering tiny seeds that produce hope.
Yesterday the Paris Climate Summit began. The hope is to reduce carbon emissions to a target of zero by 2050 or 2100, but there is no plan how to get there. There is also no mechanism requiring rich countries to reduce emissions. All there is are voluntary non-binding promises that have not been effective to date. Indeed since 1990 emissions have increased by 32%.
To make a shift away from burning fossil fuels (and thus creating carbon emissions) many poorer countries need financial support and access to clean energy technology. There has been no assessment though of what level of financial support is needed for those countries.
Allied to this is the principle that countries with the greatest responsibility for historic climate pollution, and which have the most resources available, should take the first and biggest steps towards tackling the problem and offer support to the countries with less responsibility and fewer resources. Although this principle was agreed to at earlier meetings it is under threat.
The concept of reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation will also be discussed. While this sounds commendable there is a huge debate over whether reduced emissions from deforestation should be linked to carbon trading, which would allow polluters to keep pumping out greenhouse gas emissions but ‘offset’ their climate damage by giving money to forestry projects. Many critics, particularly indigenous groups, fear that investors and speculators will buy up forest land to earn carbon credits, threatening the homes and livelihoods of those who live there.
While there is some complexity in these issues, I would make three simple observations:
Firstly, those countries that will suffer, and are suffering, the most from climate change are the poorer communities and poorer countries in the world. Their economies and political processes are often more fragile than wealthier countries. To support change therefore these poorer communities need economic and political support that benefits all their citizens, not just their elites.
Secondly, there is economic benefit for industrial leaders and their countries to keep creating carbon emissions, and therefore they find ways around (or just ignore) international reduction targets. To support change therefore such leaders and countries need to be influenced by economic disincentives [boycotts, divestment, sanctions, etc.], and electoral disincentives. Such disincentives require communities to be clear in their opposition to policies and practices supporting emissions, and express that opposition in what we buy and who we vote for.
Thirdly, our support for civic and religious groups trying to prioritize the wellbeing of the planet above the self-interest of polluters and those who benefit from their products is important. Like Pope Francis’ paper titled “Care for our Common Home”, church leaders and communities need to express their solidarity and hopes. We need to adopt an ethic of befriending our planet, and a political stance of befriending those groups committed to the same.
Watering tiny seeds of hope is also an appropriate metaphor when trying to address the spiritual and physical harm of poverty. My experience, working with some of the financially poorest neighbourhoods in New Zealand, is that poverty by means of the cocktail of anxiety, violence, and depression can destroy one’s spirit. Escaping poverty involves more than having money, though money helps. Critical to escaping is having a friend who believes in you.
I am not undervaluing money as a source of hope to those in poverty. Policies, programmes, and political goodwill to assist people to find meaningful work and support are very important, as is practical and financial assistance. But to come out of poverty there are two things more critical. One is having someone who believes in you. The other is believing in yourself.
Hope is not a mental exercise. We don’t in our misery sit down on a rock and decide that we are going to be hope-filled. Rather hope is the result of a combination of encounters with others, our personal receptivity, our awareness of life/love energy (which some call God), and our willingness to try something different or just try again.
Many years ago I met Joe, a 15 year old who slept in a car in the street I lived in. He scavenged for food and rarely attended school. My flatmate and I invited him to sleep on our couch, and thus invited him into our lives. Somehow, at some time, in those years on the couch something changed. The seed was probably always there. I remember the milestones: Joe getting his driver’s licence, attending Outward Bound, getting his heavy truck licence, leading a youth group, and becoming a gym instructor. The physical support things made a difference – a bed, food, and the like. But more importantly it was the friendship that helped him. We believed in him and it helped him believe in himself.
Self-belief doesn’t just happen. Although there is a seed within us, that seed needs fertile or fertilised ground. It needs to be watered and nurtured. In a person who has been raised in an environment of anxiety, violence, and/or depression that seed often is so shrivelled it is as if it doesn’t exist.
This is what Advent theme of ‘preparation’ can mean. It can mean tending the hope-filled seeds within so people can flourish. It can mean tending the ground – the social and community structures – that help seeds flourish; and attending to the macro social, economic, and political environments that make for healthy gardens.
This Advent let us work for and build hope. Let us prepare for Christmas not by shopping but by tending the hope-filled seeds within each other. Let us anticipate the coming of Christ by opening our eyes to the Christ growing within every one of us. Let us long together for the day when we will believe in each other, believe in ourselves, believe in the future of our planet, and believe justice and healing will flow in and through all communities and nations and be felt in the earth. And the evidence of our belief will be in our actions.