Make the El Niño Connection this Advent: Proclaim Hope Amid Climate Change
Did you know that El Niño, the name for the monster weather event so often in the headlines, also means Christ Child in Spanish? In the 1600s, fishermen along the coast of South America noticed that the weather would sometimes get warmer around Christmas, so they dubbed the weather pattern El Niño after the holy infant.
Today, El Niño is a window into the devastating effects of climate change because it exacerbates matters by adding its heat on top of the heat of global warming. Results range from milder winters in the U.S. Midwest to this October’s Hurricane Patricia, the most powerful hurricane on record. This year there are also fears of large increases in hunger globally due to disruptions in agriculture.
The Weather Event-Christ Child connection suggests a focus for churches this Advent season: The relation of the coming Christ Child to climate change.
Before scratching your head with bemusement over this seemingly odd combination of topics, consider how the lectionary Gospel reading from Luke 21:25 for the first Sunday of Advent begins, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” There are indeed signs that the earth is distressed today. The traditional warming effect of El Niño is now layered upon the increased surface temperatures of ocean waters caused by climate change. The result can be devastating. As one commentator aptly noted, “Warm water is like gasoline for a hurricane’s engine.” At the same time, Oxfam has issued a report stating that the droughts connected with global warming could potentially combine with the effects of El Niño to inflict hunger on millions of the world’s poor.
What are we to make of such signs and causes for alarm today? While the prophets of climate change are often cast as apocalyptic doomsayers, perhaps this Advent season could be a chance for Christians to reclaim the script.
As Advent reminds us, life is not completely filled with gloom. We have hope in the form of the Christ Child. In the face of giant empires and planet-sized problems, we have hope in the form of a faith that focuses our attention on the divinity and power of the small.
While not neglecting important big-picture woes, we also see the seeds for a different future, a future ordered and defined by the core values of our faith. We can see these seeds in the living body of Christ today. We can see them when our care for creation and our concern for each other motivates us to action, whether it is the recent efforts of churches to end fossil fuel subsidies or the discussions generated by an inspiring movie about the climate justice movement. The juxtaposition of an enormous weather event spanning oceans and continents with a tiny infant speaks to the radical, world-defying expectations of our faith. This is precisely the kind of faith we need now as much as ever.