The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Blessing All the Animals
In many churches, the Blessing of the Animals is a treasured moment in the liturgical year. When people bring their pets to be blessed, the church has an opportunity to affirm the richness of our connection with creatures outside our own species. It is a worship setting which reminds us of the responsibilities that we have in caring for these critters.
It is clear that people who take part in these blessings do not think of their pets as property. These dogs, cats, bunnies and birds are "animal companions" and other-than-human family members.
People -- children, but especially adults -- can be deeply moved when their beloved friends are blessed. Not only does the blessing acknowledges that the animals are loved by God, it also blesses the deep and caring relationship between the person and the animal. When the pets are old and sick, the blessing can have special meaning as an acknowledgement of mortality, and as a way to bring some healing to a grieving human.
I can't think of animal blessing ceremonies in an entirely serious way, though. Gathering a large group of animals always has the potential for humor. The animals being blessed can respond with the same range of disinterest, fascination and alarm as children who are being baptized. Worship leaders do well to plan carefully with treats, separate areas for cats and dogs, and lots of plastic bags and paper towels.
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Traditionally -- and it is a very old tradition -- the blessing of animals has dealt with domesticated animals. The livestock on a family's farm would be blessed in appreciation for their part in providing sustenance, and as a reminder of the farmer's responsibilities in caring for these beings who -- like us -- are God's creatures. In recent years, as societies have become more urban, the emphasis has shifted toward blessing family pets.
When I talk with churches about blessing ceremonies, I encourage them to go beyond the normal rituals for pets, and to include some explicit form of blessing for wild animals and endangered species. Every time I have mentioned that idea, the church leaders have responded with delight, enthusiasm and creativity.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City has a spectacular celebration of creation, with a procession that might include camels, sheep, hawks, swans, snakes, a tortoise and other charismatic species. The occasion pulls out all the stops of full Episcopal pageantry and liturgy as a prelude to the blessing of pets. It is a level of ceremony that most of us would fear to plan. Fortunately, such elaborate staging isn't necessary for a meaningful event.
Lots of churches expand their blessings by using photographs or stuffed animals as representatives for pets or for species which could not be physically present. Zoos and environmental education projects may be able to bring unusual creatures to a blessing as icons of the animal realm, and to do a bit of teaching about local wildlife.
Anglican priest Andrew Linzey is a professor of "theology and animal welfare" in England. In his book, "Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care," he reflects on the deeper meaning of animal blessing as the "authorization to be":
Thus the act of blessing is inseparable from the divine grant of land, living space, indeed life itself. The subversive implications of this definition should not go unnoticed. ... By blessing animals, therefore, we align ourselves with God's own allowance of freedom to other creatures, even (dare I say it) their own right to be themselves and to be free.
Linzey says that our sense of blessing, of affirmation and concern, should extend to those animals which are "confined, made captive, or restrained by human exploitation." An article by PETA making the same point skips quickly past the joy of a blessing ceremony, and lays out a harsh reminder of how industrial agriculture abuses and exploits animals. Confession -- while perhaps not as graphic as PETA's -- is an appropriate, even a necessary, part of the liturgy as we remember that many animals are "missing out on the blessing."
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Lots of churches schedule their blessing of the animals in early October, in connection with the Feast of St. Francis. Other congregations do it around Earth Day, or at an outdoor summer service when the logistics and clean-up are easier to handle.
Whenever the service is held, it can be an emotionally rich time to celebrate the fullness of God's creation, and to affirm the profoundly loving relationships that we share with animal companions. If the liturgy is intentional in doing so, a blessing of the animals can be a teachable moment in calling us into confession and compassion in our relationships with the larger animal realm.
If your congregation has a tradition of a blessing of the animals, please encourage the worship leader to stretch the prayers and blessing beyond the pets that people bring to church. Explore creative ways to name and visualize the creatures which are not present at that place, but which are very present within the circles of God's love and grace.
If your congregation or denomination doesn't have a tradition of blessing the animals, I hope you'll consider adding such a liturgy to your calendar. It is a simple, enjoyable and meaningful way to extend the ministries of the church beyond the human. This special liturgy also can be a form of pastoral outreach to members of the larger community who would never set foot inside a church. A well-publicized event often will bring neighbors with their pets to join in this time of blessing.
The ecumenical "Web of Creation" website has two sample liturgies for animal blessings. One of them is a fairly traditional Episcopal service. The other, from the Australian Season of Creation collection, has a more confessional style, and is more attentive to the whole animal realm.
Of course, the blessing of the animals is most meaningful when it is not the only time in the year when our churches pay attention to the whole of God's creation. As I described last week, there is a spectrum of attentiveness to the natural world in our worship, whether indoors or out. A congregation which routinely names pets, livestock and wildlife as members of Earth community will have well-grounded theological perspectives that can deepen this special liturgy.
The shared experience of a blessing service can be a wonderful opportunity to expand the ethical and pastoral awareness of your church. The presence of pets, stuffed animals and photographs is a powerful reminder that God's love and care is for all of creation.
This reflection updates and expands on the Notes of the same name distributed in 2007 and 2011.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
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