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What Comes Next

Life on this planet seems to have begun somewhere between 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago. We know this from the record written into the stones of the earth itself: telltale signs of living things that trace back that far. We have found ancient substances which living processes are required to produce. More directly, we have fossils – the remnants of once-living things slowly transformed into stone. The fossil part is particularly amazing because, from its beginning through the first two-and-a-half-billion-years-or-so, all life on earth was single-celled. For well-more than half of the known history of living things, life has existed in only the simplest, tiniest of forms.

Tiny and simple, but still incredibly creative and diverse. So it was that after a few hundred million years of mutation and evolution, exploring different possible strategies for what life could mean, the first cyanobacteria appeared. They are important, because they were the first living things capable of photosynthesis – drawing sustenance from the sun itself. This new means of gaining energy produced oxygen as a waste product. The ancient world had oxygen, of course, but it was locked up in the earth and the sea. Today, oxygen is roughly 20% of the air that surrounds us, and that is traceable to this early form of life.

Over the course of something like a billion years of making oxygen, cyanobacteria completely transformed their world. Most of the other forms of life that existed alongside them couldn’t tolerate an oxygen-rich environment. There was a mass extinction, sometimes called the Oxygen Catastrophe, which whipped out an uncountable number of different forms of ancient life. The new oxygen in the atmosphere also disrupted a process that was keeping the earth hot, helping to trigger an ice age that measured in the hundreds of millions of years. That cold snap nearly killed off the cyanobacteria, too – life nearly snuffed itself out without ever getting past the one-cell stage.

Yet, living things endured. All that free-floating oxygen made a new course for evolutionary development possible: life that actually depended on oxygen rather than being harmed by it or creating it as waste. And oxygen, it turns out, is very useful in forming and sustaining the sorts of life that are made up of more than one cell. So that today all, or very-nearly all, life on earth traces its origin back to the Oxygen Catastrophe.

We stand now at the cusp of another year, and so I share this little primordial history lesson – familiar to some of us, I know, and news to others – to remind you, and myself, of a few important things. No matter how total the wreckage of the year now past, there is no loss or upheaval so great that hope and wonder cannot follow after it. No matter how complete the transformation from one year, or one epoch, to the next, nothing we are now or will be in the future is ever entirely separate from what has gone before. No matter how strange or unfamiliar the conditions we might encounter in the months ahead, there is no circumstance that the hard-wired creativity of life cannot meet. Whatever the year holds for you, may it lead you to something wondrous.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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