Pondering two advents

By the Rev. Betsy J. Sowers

On the cusp of November, Tropical Storm Philippe caused a state of emergency in Maine.[1] Maine. In Ireland, Hurricane Ophelia killed three people in the worst weather event in 50 years.[2] Ireland. It was an unprecedented, yet scarcely noticed coda to one of the worst hurricane seasons in history. Meanwhile, fires, floods, droughts and storms at home and abroad wreak misery and mass migration. Atmospheric carbon dioxide recently reached the same level as in the Pliocene Epoch, millions of years ago, when polar ice melted and sea levels rose 66 feet higher than the present.[3] The future looks bleak. All of these disasters have me thinking about Advent. Actually, two advents.

For the past few decades, scientists have been considering declaring a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans.[4] Mortals now influence everything that had been understood to be in control of nature and nature’s God, so much so that some call it The End of Nature.[5] A lively debate continues about when to declare the advent of this epoch. Some scientists think it began 8,000 years ago, with agriculture and settled communities. Others want to see changes that have yet to happen.[6] Like Advent, the signs are already clearly visible, but the Anthropocene is not yet fully manifest.

One group of scientists offers the intriguing proposition that the Anthropocene began 2,000 years ago when great empires, including Rome, ruled the globe.[7] This would make the Advent of the Anthropocene contemporaneous with the Advent of Jesus: Rome’s imperial iteration of human domination pitted against the infant’s incarnate reiteration, “The earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1).

Of course, framing the birth of Jesus as a challenge to Rome and subsequent empires is nothing new. We date Jesus’ birth by Luke’s careful detailing of who was in power in Rome and Judea when he was born (Luke 2:1–2 and 3:1–2). Like Moses, whose Exodus message was, “God is God, and Pharaoh is not,” the subtext of Jesus’ teachings was always, “God is God, and Caesar is not.” A pregnant Mary’s prophetic Advent proclamation confirms him as the One before human empires fall (Luke 1:46–55).

Human empires are based on the dominance of mortals, whether a conquering emperor or a people who identify themselves with the power and prestige of a dominant political, religious or economic entity. Empires have always made lavish promises but historically have prospered the powerful, while spreading conquest and pillaging the natural world. Like them, the Anthropocene promises prosperity but delivers disaster on a previously unimaginable scale. As this unholy advent unfolds, death and despair follow.

In the face of this apocalyptic Anthropocene advent, Luke again proclaims the coming of a different kind of reign in a stable in occupied Bethlehem. A peasant girl gives birth to a baby, wraps him in swaddling clothes and places him in a manger’s straw, surrounded by a company of God’s creatures. Angels and shepherds sing. The advent of the Anthropocene is confronted with the Advent of God’s Reign. Christ is born. Empires of dominance and destruction are met with the counterintuitive power of a vulnerable, precious infant, who is nothing less than the Holy One incarnate. As theologian Ched Myers puts it, “Against the presence of power is pitted the power of presence: God with us.”[8]

In Jesus’ birth, the two advents come together. The advent of the Anthropocene faces us with the terrifying truth that the future of God’s earth is now in our hands. As a people who practice the discipline of Advent waiting for the already and not yet reign of Christ, we stand on a firm foundation. We are able to accept the challenge. Grounded in Advent hope, we can join Jesus in prophetic affirmation that, “God is God, and the emperors of the Anthropocene are not,” whether those emperors are principalities and powers or the personal seductions of consumer culture.

Whatever the advent of the Anthropocene brings, we can live in hope and faithful action because of another Advent. God is with us, Emmanuel. Thanks be to God.

[1] Associated Press, “Maine governor declares state of emergency,” The Boston Herald, October 30, 2017.
[2] CNBC, “Three killed as Ireland lashed by hurricane-force winds in ‘worst weather event in 50 years,’” Monday, Oct. 16, 2017.
[3] Watts, Jonathan, “Global Atmospheric Levels Hit Record High,” The Guardian, October 30, 2017.
[4] Population Matters web site, “Welcome to the Anthropocene.”
[5] McKibben, Bill, The End of Nature, Random House, 1989.
[6] Wikipedia, “Anthropocene”
[7] Ibid.
[8] Myers, Ched, “Kings vs. Kids,” Radical Discipleship, December 28, 2016.

The Rev. Betsy J. Sowers is minister for Earth Justice at Old Cambridge (Mass.) Baptist Church.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.