Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
October 8, 2017
Proper 22A: The Blessing of the Animals & Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi (Transferred)
My Friends: We warmly welcome among us today—and with great enthusiasm—our enlarged congregation of “all things bright and beautiful; all creatures great and small.” We do this to celebrate the great, October 4th feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the most popular and beloved saints of the Christian faith. So our Holy Eucharist this morning will include an additional, now annual rite here: the “Blessing of the Animals.” But before we do that, I want to say just a few things about blessing; about Saint Francis of Assisi; and about our concern and our charge to care for all of the “very good” Creation that God in God’s love and goodness has given us, and which Saint Francis so dearly and deeply loved.
So what exactly is “blessing,” and why do we bless things in the Church? We bless people and objects and churches and homes; we bless our newborn infants, marriages of every sort, and the mortal bodies of our beloved dead. We bless graves and boats and aircraft; we bless our food, our work, and our livelihoods. We even bless God! So what are we doing this morning as we shortly “bless” our animals?
To “bless” is first and foremost to give thanks to God—the author of every good—for God’s gift of that person or creature or thing in our life. Saint Teresa of Avila wrote that “we possess absolutely nothing that we have not been given,” including our very lives. We didn’t create ourselves, and we did not create the universe in which we are privileged to live. So blessing someone or something is to give thanks for them or for it. And, when we bless God, we bless God for nothing more and nothing less than for simply being God, the author of everything that was and is and is yet to be; the Alpha and the Omega; the Beginning and the End! “Ha Kadesh Baruch Hu”: “The Holy One, Blessed be He,” and “Baruch atah Adonai,” “Blessed are You, Lord our God,” are the oldest blessings in existence and the first among all other blessings.
Blessing is also the ultimate expression of love and concern. When we ask for and receive a blessing from God, from God’s holy Church, or from anyone else, for that matter, we are wishing for and asking for every possible good for that cherished creature or thing, without which our little lives would be the poorer. So, when God sends Abraham into the world, God commands Abraham and all of his descendents to “Vehyeh B’racha,” to “Be Blessing” to the rest of that world. There is no higher calling than this vocation to love all Creation and all created beings with God’s own infinite love and concern; to wish for and to be for all Creation every possible good and a blessing.
Now, this brings us to Saint Francis, the beloved thirteenth-century “holy one” or “saint” whose life expressed and reflected the holiness of God in Christ. In the case of Saint Francis, he so loved Creation and the God of all Creation—and identified so deeply with the suffering of that Creation—that, according to tradition, he eventually was marked with the very wounds (stigmata) of Christ, who is the ultimate expression of God’s suffering love for and redemptive solidarity with “the whole Creation…groaning in labor pains” as it awaits its final redemption from the power of sin and death, as Saint Paul expresses it in his letter to the Romans. On Mount Tabor in our Holy Land—the very mountain on which Jesus Christ was transfigured before the eyes of his disciples—there is a very moving statue of the crucified Christ gathering Saint Francis to himself on the cross with an extended arm. It expresses the whole meaning and destiny of Saint Francis’ life and of our life in Christ: solidarity in suffering and redemptive love for all Creation.
Saint Francis also made himself completely and entirely poor, renouncing all wealth and property for the sake of the “kingdom of God” and in service to the Gospel and Christ’s church. In the Medieval era of chivalry marked by a longing for worldly loves, Francis dedicated himself instead to “Lady Poverty” in his effort to identify himself completely with the poverty and suffering of Christ, who made himself poor and suffered for the sake of the “anawim,” the “little ones.” Eventually, Saint Francis became known far and wide as Il Poverello, “The Little Poor One.” And yet, even amidst this chosen poverty and complete self-surrender to God and neighbor, Francis never lost his joy in and reverence for God’s great gift to us of the entire created order, represented in Christian iconography by Francis preaching to the animals. So we bless our animal friends today as an expression of our joy and thanksgiving for the gift of the whole created order as well.
As we in the post-modern world face into all of the challenges and changes wrought by humankind’s degradation of our precious environment, together with the dire consequences of the climate disruption caused by greenhouse gasses and our use of fossil fuels, St Francis of Assisi has become a true saint for our time. Few before Francis or after him have so reverenced the created order and so fostered its care. Long before there was a “Green Movement,” Saint Francis knew that God never intended God’s command to Adam in Genesis to “master” and to “rule” nature as a license to degrade and to exploit it. Humankind’s mastery and rule are intended by God to imitate God’s own mastery and rule of infinite love, care, and concern for the Creation. So, Saint Francis saw all creation as his family and his kin, deserving the same love and respect that we accord our nearest and dearest. For Francis, the created order was “Mother Earth”; “Brother Sun”; “Sister Moon.” Only a mastery and rule of stewardship, respect, and graciousness toward the gift of God’s “very good” creation, bestowed on us—all undeserving—from the loving heart of God, are worthy of the creature made in the divine “bets’lem”, “the image and likeness” of God. Saint Francis’ whole life and ministry were a testament to this eternal truth about our vocation to be thankful stewards of creation.
In a few moments, we will bring forward our beloved animals of the animate and inanimate sort—all terrific friends and companions—without which our lives would not be as rich or as blessed. As we give God thanks for these magnificent friends, and ask God to give them every possible good thing, let us also see in them a token of all creation and our responsibility and good fortune to lavish on it the same care and concern—even love—that we have for these, our animal friends and companions. And when we leave this “Holy Eucharist,” this “Holy Thanksgiving” this morning, let us keep in our hearts and minds Saint Francis’ own wise words from his Rule:
I counsel, warn, and exhort my sisters and brothers in our Lord Jesus Christ that, when you go out into the world, you shall not be quarrelsome or contentious, nor judge others. But you shall be gentle, peaceable, and kind; mild and humble and virtuous in speech, as is becoming to all.
And this counsel of peace and good will—so apropos for our vulgar, contentious and divisive times—is for all creatures and for all Creation.
Let us pray, then, this morning that, through the renewal of our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus with “the breaking of the bread and the prayers,” (BCP) we may become those “instruments of God’s peace” in our violent and degraded world after the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose memory we celebrate today. AMEN.