How do we know when we are living in darkness? And what does God do about it? These questions are at the heart of our first reading and Gospel. In the reading from the second book of Chronicles, we see what happens on a large scale when enough people in a society turn their hearts away from God. The Lord sent messenger after messenger to warn the Israelites about the dangerous path they were taking; undoubtedly some people did hear the messengers and repented, turning back to the Lord with humility and open hearts. But far too many others had grown used to the darkness, no doubt even convincing themselves they were in the light. They ignored the messengers, or—worse—despised and mocked them, making it even harder for them to get a fair hearing.
One of the laws they collectively violated was the Sabbath rest for the land: Every seven years they were to let their lands rest from crop production, which kept their agricultural practices environmentally sustainable and also encouraged them to remember that all creation belongs to God, and we don’t have a right to do with it as we please. There were many other ways in which they turned from God, too, but they all had this in common: the Israelites had put their faith in themselves and their own ways of interacting with the world, and had closed their hearts to those aspects of God’s way that they didn’t want to follow.
Like the Israelites, we too walk a dangerous path today. Our popes and bishops have been warning us with increasing urgency for several decades that the materialism of our ordinary, everyday lifestyle is leading us away from God and toward social and ecological disaster. They keep reminding us that the natural resources of the world, the fruits of God’s creation, belong to all, and that it is our sacred task to use these resources in a careful, balanced way that prioritizes the needs of the global poor and that keeps God’s creation in good health both for its own sake and for future generations.
Here in the United States we make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and yet we use 25 percent of the world’s resources and generate 40 percent of the world’s waste. We throw away almost a third of our food; we throw away enough plastic utensils and other fast food items each year to circle the world three times; we throw away a billion trees’ worth of paper every year and 2 ½ million plastic bottles an hour!
Pope John Paul II said, “It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence.” As Pope Benedict has said, "Our world is made of two rooms: in one room, things go to waste, in the other, people are wasting away." And as they have pointed out, this widespread self-centeredness is now threatening the very climate that sustains life. Pope Benedict speaks as though it is hard for him to believe we can be so callous. He says, “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change…? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of ‘environmental refugees’…? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources?”
The Israelites would understand. Our first reading is one of a number of places in the Old Testament that connects widespread sin with environmental degradation. The writer makes clear that their slavery lasted long enough to let the land recover from all the years they didn’t treat it with covenantal care. Like them, we are facing destruction on a biblical scale, and for the same reason: we have become convinced that we, not God, are in charge of the world and of our individual destinies, and we prefer the darkness to the light. Like the Israelites, we even convince ourselves that our darkness is light!
In our readings, God responded to this widespread hardening of hearts in three ways: First, God sent messengers to warn the people, hoping that enough would turn back to him. When that didn’t work, God let the people suffer the natural results of their apostasy. Finally, God so loved the world that he sent his own Son, Jesus, as an eternal answer of love in the face of hatred and self-centeredness. Like the other messengers, Jesus too was despised and mocked, but from his cross he also shines a perpetual light into the darkness that can transform and save anyone who comes to him.
God is responding in the same three ways today. He is sending messenger after messenger warning us that our young children and grandchildren face a world of massive disruptions if we don’t quickly phase out our use of fossil fuels and accept a simpler lifestyle. Just as in our first reading, these messengers are often mocked and despised. Mocking and despising messengers is a clear sign of preferring darkness. If too few of us listen to them in time, God will let us suffer the consequences of our hardness of heart, hoping that this will lead us back to him. This is not an issue of liberals vs. conservatives; our popes have been telling us for more than 30 years that it is an issue of our faithfulness to our covenant with our Creator, who expects us to live in a way that is both sustainable and just. Pope Benedict says, “It is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-style and the prevailing models of consumption and production….We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles….”
This is very hard for us. No question about it. Like the Israelites, we have been in the darkness for so long that our eyes have adjusted to it. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever lives the truth comes to the light.” Pope Benedict has been urgently warning us about the moral injustice of our materialism and about the terrible consequences of climate change that our young children and grandchildren will face as a result. He says, "Our earth speaks to us, and we must listen if we want to survive."
Our Lenten journey is leading us once again to Calvary, with Jesus lifted up on the cross for our sake. He did not come to condemn, but to save. If we are willing to take that first step toward Jesus, he will draw us out of the darkness of unthinking materialism into his light of truth and show us how to live simply, so that others may simply live.