Feast Day of St. Francis

Editor’s Note: Each week in August WorkingPreacher.org published commentaries that correspond with the readings for Season of Creation 2013: Series C (Wisdom in Creation). A full listing of worship resources (including liturgies to accompany the readings) can be found online at http://seasonofcreation.com/worship-resources/.

Churches have increasingly celebrated the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the first Sunday of October, with prayers for the blessing of animals. Church members and neighbors bring family dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, even fish to be honored as valued members of households and of society, loved by God and appreciated by those with whom they live.

St. Francis himself (1181/82-1226), the patron saint of animals and of the environment, displayed humble respect for the earth and its creatures. He called the birds his sisters and the wolves his brothers. He found companionship not only among humans and other animals, but with the sun and moon, the wind and air, and mother earth herself. Nearing his life’s end, he composed the Canticle of the Creatures (the Canticle of Brother Sun), praising God for animate creation: the sun, moon, stars, wind, water, fire, and earth. Stories were told of his preaching to the birds, reasoning with wolves, and befriending rabbits and fish.

Today as researchers draw attention to animals’ subjectivity and skills, and as concern has grown over animal cruelty and species extinction, more and more people are rethinking our relationships with animals, our responsibilities toward them, and the richness they bring to life.

The four readings for October 6 are suitable not only for services for blessing the animals, but for raising awareness in the human congregation. From these passages we see God’s direct love for animals, and what we might learn from contemplating them.

Genesis 2:18-25 relates the creation of the animals and of the first woman. Its traces of continuity between human and animal creatures often go underreported, while notions of human superiority and even uniqueness are read in.

Reading carefully, we see that in making the animals God intends companionship for the earthling, who should not live alone. These animals are formed from the same ground, adamah, from which the human was made in verse 7. Startlingly, they are described, as he was, as nefesh hayah. NRSV and other translations err when they render the phrase differently of the man (“living being,” 2:7) than of the other animals (“living creatures,” 2:19). This same phrase describes the living ones in Genesis 1:20, 24, and 30. In Genesis 9:12, 15, and 16 the phrase reappears, and is expanded to “every living creature of all flesh,” as humans and animals alike are included in the one covenant God makes with the earth (verse 13).

The animals approach the man unafraid. His naming them does not demonstrate hierarchy — not unless Hagar’s naming of God makes her the Creator’s superior (16:13). Rather, naming implies recognition and distinction. The man finds no mate among these companions, not because he alone is unique, but because of the more exacting demands of coupling in all species: we have many suitable friends and companions, but suitable spouses are few. The animals are the larger community in which the couple briefly thrives. This, the only happy episode in Eden, suggests the relationships the creator intended before humans disobeyed. We can’t return to the garden, but it does provide a yardstick for our respect for animals today.

Psalm 148 appears in the Season of Creation readings for September 29 (year C) as well, on which William P. Brown provides commentary (please add hyperlink here). Like St. Francis and perhaps inspiring him, the psalmist makes little distinction between the biological world and the animate forces of nature, nor between plants and animals, nor between human animals and other animals. Each in its own way and according to its kind is called to praise, in a great merism encompassing heights and depths, days and nights, heat and cold, wild and domestic, earthbound and airborne, powerful and lowly, male and female, old and young.

Revelation 5:11-14 portrays all creation praising God in the heavenly throne room. The scene begins in Revelation 4 by describing the twenty-four elders, perhaps symbolizing the church’s totality, and four creatures resembling a lion, an ox, a human, and an eagle (rulers of four distinctive domains: the wild, the domestic, the social, and the airborne). These animals, creatively adapted from Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6, lead the elders in worship.

After another animal, the Lamb, is introduced in Revelation 5:6, the four and the twenty-four sing a song of praise to him (5:9-10). Praise erupts throughout creation in verses 11-14, when myriads of angels join the chorus, followed by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.” This dramatic scene narrates in glorious detail what Psalm 148 and other psalms describe, God’s praise erupting from all creation and all its creatures, human and non-human alike. Not just human society, but all creatures reflect the joy of God’s redemption.

Matthew 6:25-29, finally, offers a lesson in simplicity from God’s provision for two most graceful sectors of creation, the birds we hear and the flowers we see and smell. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, these both live by God’s daily bread. The passage directly follows Jesus’ observation that serving God is inimical to serving wealth. God, who cares deeply for all creation, providing bountiful food and splendid beauty, has certainly structured the world so that even humans can live lightly with our necessities. If God so provides, why worry over non-essentials? Nothing necessitates our becoming so self-absorbed as to plunder the resources needed by others, either human or nonhuman. We can relax, and enjoy the wider friendship of our companions on the earth.

On this day especially we might stop to feel our animal companions’ fur, and enjoy their love. We might observe the purposefulness and playfulness of small creatures in the yard. We might listen for each distinctive songbird in the chorus outside our door. We might recall that God knows each sparrow by name. We might consider how our own practices promote or hinder the earth’s other creatures, and thus honor others loved by God.