27 March is the World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour
23 March is the United Nations’ World Meteorological Day
22 March is the United Nations’ World Water Day
21 March is the United Nations’ International Day of Forests
2020-2021 was the Laudato Si’ Special anniversary Year
March is full of days that focus on our environment. They include World Meteorological Day, which celebrates the scientists who track and publicise the heating of the world and its effects. World Forest Day reminds us of the essential part that woods and forests have in absorbing carbon emissions and in addressing climate change. World Water Day, too, recalls the threat caused by global warming to river systems and so to the water supply on which we rely in order to stay alive. For Catholics, all these days are embraced by Pope Francis’ dedication of 2021 to reflection on his letter Laudato Si’.
Perhaps the most intriguing and simple of the March celebrations is the annual observance of Earth Hour. It is very simple. It invites people, buildings and agencies to turn off the lights at 8.30pm and to join this to their own initiatives on behalf of the environment. In Catholic language, this gesture is sacramental – it is a symbolic action, one that does what it means. Its meaning is to strengthen our commitment needed to protect the environment by conserving energy and reducing emissions. The action of turning off lights in a very small way does these things.
Of course, like all good symbols, turning off the lights suggests many other meanings. When the numbers at Mass seem to be dropping, we sometimes joke, ‘Last person out, turn off the lights’. From this point of view, Earth hour draws attention to the destruction of our human world that threatens if we do not address climate change seriously.
Turning off the lights, too, marks the end of our day when we are left alone with our thoughts. It is a powerful symbol of reflectiveness and of attending to the overwhelming reality of climate change from which the business of the day distracts us.
Sometimes we associate turning out the lights with entering into a magical and hopeful world. At dinner time, just as a birthday cake loaded with candles is about to brought in for the birthday person to blow out, we say, “Turn off the lights’. We remember the scene as one of bright-eyed, fresh, smiling faces.
The same movement into a deeper world can also take place in prayer groups as they move from happy conversation to prayer. We turn off the lights so that we can focus more deeply by candle-light. In birthdays and prayer groups, turning out the lights represents the passing of the ordinary and predictable patterns of life to allow entry into a new world bright with intimacy and hope. The change symbolises a new world in which we have all taken climate change seriously and work together happily both personally and as citizens to address it.
Turning out the lights might remind Christians of the Gospel story of Good Friday when at 3.00 in the afternoon, Jesus died and darkness covered the earth. The dying of Jesus and of the light, of course, looked forward to the rising of Jesus and the light of Easter morning. Jesus submitted to darkness in order to bring light. It echoes the seriousness required of us in addressing climate change in our personal and social lives, and the hope with which we may nurture.
In his letter Laudato Si’, Pope Francis sets out the crisis that faces the world and people in it, and the way in which this crisis is linked to inequality and greed. This linkage echoes our experience at Jesuit social services in accompanying people who have struggled against exclusion. The poor are canaries in the mine of the world. When they and their environment are exploited, the lights of the world flicker and die. Our response is to ensure that in all that we do we have an eye out for other people and for the world around us and care for the most vulnerable. When we do that we can demand a similar attention from our political leaders and large companies.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.