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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Christmas, Extinction, and Life
distributed 12/15/06 - ©2006

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Charlie Coon, of Colorado Springs, Colorado. His generous support helps make this publication possible. We also take this occasion to celebrate the way Charlie has used Notes through the last year to stimulate environmental awareness and reflection at the Broadmoor Community Church.

In Christmas, we find both the earthiness of a stable and the cosmic splendor of Christ.

At the very moment when our liturgy recalls young Mary screaming out in the pain of childbirth, we lift our candles to proclaim that a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. (Actually, most of our Christmas services presume a serene and smiling birth scene. Somebody needs to write a play which shows Mary in the throes of transition, swearing up a blue streak at Joseph and God.)

In the sublime words at the start of John's gospel, Christ is the source of all creation -- including the barnyard and the wilderness. Hear again the inclusive message in those familiar words: "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life." The Christ of the Bible is not distant from our experience, abstracted into a heavenly purity. No, "the Word became flesh and lived among us."

If we honor the rich message of Christmas, if we take seriously the scandalous truth of incarnation, we will remember God's love for all of creation. We miss the point, and we distort the truth, if we tell of the Nativity without going beyond the human.

As I wrote in Christmas Critters four years ago,

The livestock who are portrayed in the stable are exceptional, symbolic creatures. The cattle don't drool on the baby, and the donkey doesn't try to munch on the swaddling cloths. In the iconography of the manger scene, the barnyard critters represent all of the non-human parts of creation. Along with the shepherds and the magi, they, too, gather in worship and praise.

As I seek to remember other critters in this season, two news stories have settled into my heart. Reports from the world of science remind me of the "darkness" into which the light must shine, and of the hope that the holy light of life is, ultimately, triumphant.

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The Associated Press reported from Beijing this week.

A rare, nearly blind white dolphin that survived for millions of years is effectively extinct, an international expedition declared Wednesday after ending a fruitless six-week search of its Yangtze River habitat. ... For the baiji, the culprit was a degraded habitat -- busy ship traffic, which confounds the sonar the dolphin uses to find food, and overfishing and pollution in the Yangtze waters of eastern China.

The demise of the baiji -- a revered creature that the Chinese called "the goddess of the Yangtze" -- is no surprise. Its declining numbers and ruined habitat have been observed for decades. This week's report is just the official notice of an expected extinction.

The white dolphin is remarkable, not because this unique treasure has been removed from the face of the Earth, but because of the amount of attention given to its passing. Only a few charismatic species -- the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, or the baiji -- have teams of researchers searching for a surviving remnant. Of the tens of thousands of species driven to extinction each year, most are little known, perhaps even un-named by humans. Yet the diversity of life is diminished just as much by the loss of an anonymous beetle as by the passing of a dolphin species.

The white dolphin of China is an icon of extinction for me. Just as the sheep and the cattle at the manger represent the whole of creation, the beloved white dolphin of the Yangtze represents all the species which are being exterminated. Worldwide, the pervasive and destructive impacts of humanity are causing extinctions at a rate 100 to 1,000 times what it would be without our impacts.

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The news is far more upbeat from the Census of Marine Life, a ten-year, international research effort "to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life in the oceans." (See www.coml.org for reports and pictures.)

This study of the world's oceans has discovered a wild variety of life. One researcher said, "Animals seem to have found a way to make a living just about everywhere." Another reported that "We can't find anyplace where we can't find anything new."

In the sea surrounding the Antarctic, beneath more than 1,600 feet of ice, researchers found a community of marine life with more new species than familiar ones. In the Coral Sea, a species of shrimp which had been thought to have been extinct for millions of years was found alive and well. Near Easter Island, a new type of "furry" crab was discovered which is so unusual that taxonomists had to name a new family to contain its uniqueness. These are not new species amid the web of life, but they are new to our awareness. Thanks be to God for these remarkable discoveries.

I rejoice in the persistence and fecundity and diversity of life. The marine census documents the creative power of God, and affirms the continuing blessing of Genesis 1:22 -- "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas." It resonates, for me, with the proclamation of John: "What has come into being in him was life ... and the darkness did not overcome it."

These two news stories impress on me a truth with a deeply tragic edge. God's life-giving Spirit, Christ's creative presence, do intend life in countless forms to spring forth on the Earth. But that creative intention of God is frustrated where humanity asserts its arrogant will. Dolphins and woodpeckers and beetles go extinct when we refuse to grant them space to live, and when we poison their habitat. We, the human species, too often embody the deep darkness which opposes the light of God.

This Christmas, I center myself in the hope that God's light and life will prevail on this beloved Earth. I pray that the destructive darkness inherent in my life and in our society may be overcome and transformed by the love of God.

The promise of Christmas -- of the entire Christian faith -- is that God does triumph over death. May that promise shape us and sustain us in these days.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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