Remarks: Blessing of the Animals
The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.
The father of the little boy who would grow up to become the famous Francis of Assisi was a wealthy Italian who made a fortune selling cloth in Paris. He loved France so much that he named his first-born son Francis, or France, or, in slang English, Frenchy.
Yes, it’s true; ironically, the patron saint of Italy is called Frenchy. Francis was born in 1180. He might be the most beloved saint in the Roman Catholic Church, or maybe second after Mother Mary herself.
He is held in such high regard in Roman Catholicism that the current Bishop of Rome is the first pope ever to dare to take Francis’ name. Actually, that is working out quite well for our Catholic friends, because Pope Francis’ life is closer to that of his namesake Francis of Assisi than any other in living memory.
Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of Italy, and also of animals, because he occasionally would preach to them when his human congregation fell asleep or got mad at his pointed, vivid homilies. He is also the patron saint of the environment.
Francis died on October 3, 1226. His feast day is October 4. To honor the memory of Francis, many churches, especially in the Catholic and Anglican traditions, hold services of Blessing of the Animals on or close to Francis’ feast day, but it’s also fitting to celebrate a service of Blessing of the Animals near Christmas, because Francis of Assisi is the first person we know of to put animals in his nativity scenes.
St. Luke doesn’t mention any animals at the birth of Jesus. He doesn’t even mention the stable that is so prominent in Christian imaginations at Christmastime. All Luke talks about are the sheep the shepherds were watching over in the nearby pasture, and also the fact that there was no room in the inn for Joseph and Mary, so she laid her newborn son in a manger.
But Francis figured that where there was a manger, there must have been a stable, and where there was a stable, there must have been animals.
In fact, there is a long tradition in the Christian Church that the stable Joseph and Mary used as a labor and delivery ward belonged to the shepherds the angels visited that first Christmas night in the nearby pasture. That’s how those shepherds knew right where to find the Holy Family after the angels made their announcement; it was literally in their own backyard.
So one December in 1223, Francis of Assisi wants to stage a huge, joyful Christmas tableau replete with human actors playing Joseph and Mary, and a real live infant for the baby Jesus, and also borrowed farm animals to represent Jesus’ first worshipful congregation–definitely some sheep, maybe a cow or two, surely a sheepdog; one ancient supposition has it that there was a donkey present in that stable for the birth of Jesus; 30 years later, that same donkey would give Jesus a ride into the city of Jerusalem.
After the nativity tableau, Francis threw a huge party for his human guests, and saw to it that extra grain and hay and seed were available for the animals.
And so on the first Sunday after Christmas, we at Kenilworth Union bless our furry, faithful, four-footed friends, to honor St. Francis, because since 1223, no crèche we’ve ever seen has been animal-less.
I am quite certain that one of Francis’ favorite Bible passages was Psalm 104: “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. All the animals look to God for their food in due season.”
So we bless our faithful friends, because where would we be without them?