Today is our annual Blessing of the Animals, a day when we remember the witness of St. Francis of Assisi and remember to the goodness of God’s creation. For some, the Blessing of the Animals may be little more than a gimmick. For others of us, it is a way of acknowledging the relationships we have with our pets, the reality that these relationships can be deep, long-lasting, and fulfilling, and that through them, we can experience the love of God.
When we bless our pets, as is the case when we take the time to bless or give thanks for the fruit of the earth, the beauty and bounty of God’s creation, we remind ourselves that our relationship with God is not merely an inward, spiritual thing. It is also bound up with the material world, the creation that God made and gave us to be stewards and caretakers of.
In a week when the UN issued yet another report on Global Warming, with its warning that we will soon reach a point where the trend will be irreversible, it’s important for us to spend at least a few minutes thinking about the religious and spiritual dimensions of our relationship with the world in which we live. We confess each week that God is the Creator of heaven and earth.
In spite of all of the cultural controversy surrounding that notion, it’s crucial both to our understanding of God and the starting point for any Christian reflection on creation. At the heart of the biblical understanding of creation is a very simple idea, that world in which we live is good. After each act of creation, the authors of Genesis 1 say: “And God saw that it was good.” The goodness, the beauty of creation, is reaffirmed and re-sanctified in the Incarnation, when Jesus Christ became flesh and lived among us.
This understanding of creation ought to shape our relationship to the environment but too often, humans, Christians, have seen the world as little more than material to be extracted and exploited. And we are living with the consequences of that attitude. We see the ravages of decades of environmental destruction in so many places around the world. We know the problems here in our own city and county with the toll taken on our lakes by run-off. In spite of the political debate over global warming, the evidence of human involvement in it is overwhelming.
Part of the problem is that our attitude toward creation is shaped by a narrow reading of part of the creation stories in Genesis. When God creates humans in Genesis 1, God instructs them to “fill the earth and subdue it,” to have dominion over the animals. That has given rise to the notion that the world is there for our use and exploitation.
There’s another version of creation, though, in chapter 2 of Genesis. In that story, God plants a garden, and creates a man to take care of it. In this version, human beings are caretakers, stewards of God’s creation. The goodness of creation exists, not for us alone, but for itself and for God’s good pleasure and there’s a sense in which the fall was at least in part because humans showed themselves to be inadequate stewards.
Reminding us of our duty to be stewards of creation is one small part of our blessing of the animals. Those of us who have pets are well aware of their utter dependence on us, for food and water and for health. When we nurse a pet in illness and death, we learn important lessons about the interconnectedness of life and the awesome responsibility that God has given us to be stewards and caretakers of God’s creation.
And that brings us back to St. Francis. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of the doctrines of creation and incarnation for any Christian understanding of the created order. In his life, we see an emphasis on both of those central aspects of our faith. Yes he preached to birds, tamed a wolf that was ravaging a town. He sang of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. But all of that was not just sentimentality or pious legend. It was the very heart of who he was. For Francis, the joy and wonder he experienced in the world around him was part and parcel of the joy and wonder of his faith and his experience of Jesus Christ.
We can also see the joy and wonder of Francis’ faith in his imitation of Christ. Imitation of Christ may be the key theme in Francis’ faith and spirituality. He is often credited with setting up the first crèche—nativity scene. It included, of course, live animals. There is a simplicity and literal-mindedness in Francis’ imitation of Christ. He adopted the dress mandated by Jesus when he sent out the seventy—a simple robe, a rope for a belt, sandals.
At the heart of his imitation of Christ was the cross. In fact, near the end of his life, after he had given up any leadership in the order he founded, Francis withdrew to a hermitage where he spent his time alone, in prayer and meditation. During that time, as his identification with Jesus Christ and with the cross intensified, he received the sign of the stigmata—for the last months of his life his hands and feet bled from wounds, similar to the wounds suffered by Christ on the cross.
That intensity reminds us how very different the historical Francis is from the Francis that is too often celebrated in our culture. He was intense. He rejected the idea that Franciscans should own property and various stories about him attest to his visceral hatred, even fear of wealth. He ministered to and among the poor, especially the poor of the newly urbanized towns of Italy.
While he remains elusive to us, and his intense, literal devotion may seem strange, there are many ways in which his ideas and ideals continue to resonate in contemporary Christianity. Perhaps one of the best expression of those ideals can be seen in Pope Francis, who although a Jesuit showed his devotion to Francis of Assisi by taking his name. In his demeanor and many of his actions, we can see evidence of St. Francis’ importance for the pope. We can see the joy and wonder of his faith on display for all of us. We can see humility and simplicity in his refusal to live in the papal apartments, in his driving an old Renault around Vatican City. And in his love and concern for the poor, we can see echoes of St. Francis as well.
Like many of the saints, Francis can be an inspiration to us as well. He reminds us of the beauty and joy we can find in creation, in the love of our pets. He calls us to discipleship, to follow Christ and to imitate him. And he challenges us to minister to and among the poor, the sick, the cast-offs of our society. In Francis, we can encounter Jesus Christ in new and challenging ways. Thanks be to God.