God and sinners, reconciled

Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;
let the sea and what fills it resound;
let the plains be joyful and all that is in them!
Then shall all the trees of the forest exult.
R. Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
(Responsorial Psalm, 96: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13, Midnight Mass)

This painting by Lorenzo Lotto (1480–1556) reminds us that Christ’s cross is not detached from His crib of hope. As the Christmas hymn refrains, God and sinners require reconciliation. And so today, on the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we celebrate the great moment when God came among us, visibly—born to Mary in poverty.

At Christmas—especially the powerful liturgies of Midnight Mass, from which I’ve just returned—the sinful nature of man is contrasted with the self-revealing humility and stunning love of our Creator. Indeed, while celebrating the birth of Christ, we cannot forget exactly why we sinners needed, and need, his salvific entry into human history.

Modern culture doesn’t encourage talk of sin, but I often refer to the sinful nature of man to explain why I have a job. As an environmental regulator, I am employed to ensure that people do what needs to be done to be good stewards of a tender natural order. Sin, however, often makes people do otherwise.

This struck home a few weeks back when at work I attended a presentation on the latest issue confronting many environmental regulators: hydrofracking.

Hydrofracking is a method to free up natural gas from shale deposits deep underground. The process requires water—lots of it—that is enhanced with chemicals and injected deep below the earth’s surface. The resulting pressure opens new pathways for natural gas to escape, be collected, and used for human consumption.

Proponents of the process celebrate hydrofracking’s ability to offer homemade, relatively clean natural gas, rather than importing it from overseas—especially from politically volatile regions. The jobs and the resource it produces are real—which benefit many.

But not everyone is celebrating.

Photo: Flicker/Adrian Kinloch

Critics of the process—ecologists across the globe and many who live in areas where high levels of natural gas deposits have captured the attention of energy companies—claim that fracking contaminates drinking water aquifers, pollutes surface waters, and generally makes life unpleasant. You’ll hear the word “poisoning” often from critics of hydrofracking, and perhaps for good reason.

In the upper mid-Atlantic region of the United States, in an area known as the Marcellus Shale deposits, local governments and homegrown activists are seeking to reign in the damage being done from fracking and things are heating up as people get impatient.

And so we have the classic conflict between jobs, energy, and profits versus local ecologies, homeowners’ rights, and public health—and it’s all making lots of news.

One significant problem is that environmental regulators seem to be in catch-up mode with the natural gas industry.

For instance, because so much water is needed for high-pressure injection, companies are hiring a good many local haulers who may or may not be trained in disposing of the collected, soiled water. Or the occasional hauler may struggle with ethics. And that’s where sin comes in: It is conceivable that local truckers may seek to forego long drives to water treatment facilities because dumping their contents into a local stream allows them to make more runs and pocket more money than they could if they followed the rules.

Then there’s the science behind the interplay of fracking with drinking water aquifers. A recent EPA report seems to justify the concerns of many neighboring residents of fracking operations, but more research is needed to know how to better regulate the industry.

I could go on—and I will as the story unfolds. But for now, I’d like pull back to the topic of the day: Christmas.

Photo: Flicker/Thomas Hawk

The need for a savior—for our King of Kings—is apparent when we witness firsthand the weakness of other human beings, and of ourselves. Sometimes evil seems to be unstoppable, or it seems to lurk within what should be a positive development for local economies.

But Christmas reminds us that sin has a divine, invincible opponent. As the Holy Father noted in his Christmas Eve homily:

For the people of pre-Christian times, whose response to the terrors and contradictions of the world was to fear that God himself might not be good either, that he too might well be cruel and arbitrary, this was a real “epiphany”, the great light that has appeared to us: God is pure goodness. Today too, people who are no longer able to recognize God through faith are asking whether the ultimate power that underpins and sustains the world is truly good, or whether evil is just as powerful and primordial as the good and the beautiful which we encounter in radiant moments in our world. “The kindness and love of God our Saviour for mankind were revealed”: this is the new, consoling certainty that is granted to us at Christmas. In all three Christmas Masses, the liturgy quotes a passage from the Prophet Isaiah, which describes the epiphany that took place at Christmas in greater detail: “A child is born for us, a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace. Wide is his dominion in a peace that has no end” (Is 9:5f.).

And so let we sinners rejoice at the coming of Christ into human history, because as this environmental regulator can attest to from the shortcomings of others—and most especially my own—we need Christ.

And for all those suffering from the ills of fracking, let us again pay heed to the Holy Father’s Christmas homily:

And let us also pray especially at this hour for all who have to celebrate Christmas in poverty, in suffering, as migrants, that a ray of God’s kindness may shine upon them, that they – and we – may be touched by the kindness that God chose to bring into the world through the birth of his Son in a stable. Amen.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.