This year, there’s an interesting calendrical coincidence: Today is both Earth Day and Good Friday. That being so, I thought it would prove enlightening to compare these two holidays and the messages they respectively send to their practitioners.
One of the holidays on this date is to commemorate the gory death of a Jewish mystic some two thousand years ago, a dimly remembered event in an obscure corner of a long-vanished empire – an event which, we’re told, takes precedence over everything else that’s ever happened, and that people living today should feel personally responsible for. The other is to celebrate the Earth – our home, the cradle of our life – and to remind us of its vulnerability and our common responsibility to protect it.
In many ways, these holidays sum up the competing religious and secular views of our existence, and the contrast between them couldn’t be clearer. One celebrates parochial interests; the other is for the sake of common concerns that matter to all of us. One is to pay homage to superstition; the other is to raise awareness of the pressing realities we can’t afford to ignore. One holiday is meant to fill us with misery and lamentation; the other is meant to give us reason to hope. One holiday is meant to keep us dwelling on the past; the other encourages us to look to the future.
The overwhelming importance placed by Christians on Good Friday, its ad nauseam repetition and commemoration, shows the myopia of their religious viewpoint. Even if Jesus existed, his death was just one among many in a turbulent and violent era, yet believers continue to insist that this one death, out of billions of anonymous and forgotten others in human history, is freighted with cosmic significance. Some go so far as to call it the only truly important thing that’s ever happened in the entire lifetime of the cosmos, and its consequences the only thing worth concerning ourselves with.
Meanwhile, Earth Day calls our attention not to provincial religious mythologies, but to a broader, global perspective and to the things of true importance that are happening on our planet. In the real world, rainforest is being cut down to grow cash crops and graze cattle, and the green and living lungs of the planet are slowly turning to desert. In the real world, our reckless burning of fossil fuel continues to pump carbon into the atmosphere, and as the climate slowly warms in response, ice caps and glaciers are retreating, droughts are growing more severe and storms more powerful, and sea levels are rising, threatening island nations and coastal cities alike. In the real world, human overuse and sprawl is draining aquifers, drying up lakes and rivers, ransacking virgin habitat, and driving species to extinction, each one a unique, irreplaceable treasure trove of genetic diversity lost forever.
These realities press in on us, whether we want to admit it or not. Try as we might to adapt, they’re undermining the way of life our civilization has grown to depend on. If we continue on our unsustainable course, there will come a day when we’ll have to face a reckoning – and no ancient, crucified Jewish sage is going to return from the clouds to magically save us all by recreating the Earth as it once was. Hoping for a miracle is only going to distract us from the urgency of the course corrections we still have to make, while there’s time for them to do our descendants any good.
Not only does Good Friday value superstition over reality, its intent is to moor believers to the past, perpetually replaying a long-ago evil – and telling them that they are personally responsible for it. In the Roman Catholic tradition, Good Friday is a day of lamentation, penance and sorrow. Believers are encouraged to fast all day, to perform the Stations of the Cross (a series of images used to visualize and meditate on Jesus’ agonizing death), and to pray acts of reparation apologizing for the crucifixion. Church altars are covered with black cloth, and in some churches, images of the crucified Jesus or Jesus in the tomb are presented so that believers can kneel, weep and kiss them. Any display of happiness is frowned on. According to the official Catholic liturgy, even funerals held on this day should have no singing or music.
By contrast, Earth Day calls on us to acknowledge our responsibility in environmental destruction, yes, but not for the sake of self-flagellation. Rather, its purpose is to inspire us to mindfulness and action: to preserve what hasn’t been destroyed, to save what can still be saved, to avert what can still be averted, and most of all, to do this not out of guilt but because we recognize our world as a precious thing worthy of protection. Our planet is a vast, ineffably beautiful, majestic yet fragile place, unique (as far as we know) in all the immensity of the cosmos, and its riches and wonders are the common property of humankind. We should learn from it not to exalt one faith, one culture, or one life above all others, because we are all part of an interconnected whole, and it’s this recognition, and not baseless superstition, that should guide us to a more enlightened and moral view of our place in it all.
[Editor’s Note: As an Earth Day treat, check out NASA’s Eyes on the Earth website – a stunning multimedia display that lets you track, in real time, the scientific satellites orbiting our planet, see them up close, learn about their missions, and even see the data that they’ve collected!]