I know these services, which seem to be popping up all over the place, can be a little puzzling to a lot of Christians. 'Blessing the animals'? What is that all about? What has that got to do with the gospel or the great commission?
Well, I happen to believe it actually has a lot to do with the gospel--and the great commission!
The gospel is the good news that Jesus is Lord, and that one day he will return to heal the world, right all wrongs, make all things new, and sit enthroned as Lord over his creation forever. On the cross and in the resurrection Jesus broke the power of the two great enemies of his reign, sin and death, which have worked throughout history to poison the creatures God made.
One of the ways sin and death have marred the world is in the violence and conflict that has developed between humanity and God's other creatures, especially the animals. According to the book of Genesis, humanity's relation to the animals was meant to be one of peaceful co-existence and interaction (Gen 2:18-20), but after sin entered the world this relationship was eventually destroyed (Gen 3:15; 9:1-3).
As with all the other effects of sin, the gospel teaches us that Jesus came to undo this damage, to repair this relationship. Just as the Old Testament prophets taught (Isaiah 11:1-9; 65:17-25; Hosea 2:18), through Jesus God ultimately intends to restore humanity's relationship to the beasts, to change it from a relationship of strife to one of blessing, like it was between Adam and the other creatures in the beginning. No more conflict or bloodshed, but peace, and companionship.
Like I said in worship Sunday morning, I think that the popular story of Christian the Lion is a beautiful picture of God's intention to heal our relationship with the animals. If you've never heard this tale, see the YouTube video below--it's well worth your time.
Maybe this kind of peace and reconciliation between creatures so often at war with each other--just consider this CNN article from last week--is what Jesus had in mind in Mark 16:15. This is Mark's rendition of the Great Commission, but instead of the "all nations" we're familiar with in Matthew 28, here Jesus tell his disciples to "go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." This is news for all of God's creatures!
Does this mean we should literally preach the gospel to birds, like St. Francis is supposed to have done? I don't know about that... but I do believe that the Blessing of the Animals service (usually held, appropriately, on the feast of St. Francis) is one way that Christians can cling to the gospel promise of a coming healing for all of God's creatures and one way that we can share this good news with the animals, fulfilling the commission in Mark.
The healing work God has in store is still ahead. We can't expect to simply start living differently with wild animals--even heart-warming stories like Christian's are more complicated than they seem--but praying God's blessing over the animals is one thing we can do now, in the midst of this broken relationship, to show our faith in, and dedication to, God's plan.
So this weekend at Grace, in keeping with the scope of God's redeeming work and with Christ's commission to bring good news to all creatures, we did this Blessing of the Animals. And we're doing some more things throughout the month of October! Here on the blog, I'll be offering posts that go along with all of that. I hope that the next few weeks will give the folks at Grace Church a chance to really get their hands dirty with the work of living alongside God's other creatures in a way that is faithful, and these few weeks will give everyone reading the wardrobe an opportunity to think long and hard about what God is up to in the world--because the gospel is bigger than we sometimes think.