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St Francis and St Clare

Sarah Higginbotham
Sun, Sep 25

Text: Genesis 1: 20-25

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”

So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that is was good.

God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.

God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

-- --

The text of this reflection is excerpted from two children’s books:

“Saint Francis” by Brian Wildsmith, published by Eerdmans books for Young Readers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996.

“The Blessing of the Beasts” by Ethel Pochocki, engravings by Barry Moser, published by Paraclete Press, Brewster, Massachusetts, 2007.

So, why do we have a worship service for blessing animals?

Well, once upon a time, over 800 years ago, in a small city in Italy, there was man called Francesco. We translate his name in English as Francis. His father was a very rich man, a silk merchant, and his mother was a noblewoman.

As a teenager, Francis enjoyed singing and playing the lute, wearing fine clothes, and dancing and joking with his friends. But when he was still a young man, no more that 22 years old or so, he became very ill. His mother slowly nursed him back to health, but Francis had become sad during his illness.

When Francis felt a bit stronger, he went out walking. The sun shone, but he did not see it. The birds sang, but he did not hear. Flowers filled the air with scent, but he was unaware. Along his walk, he came to a ruined church, and he knelt to pray. As he was praying, Francis heard a voice. The voice said, “Francis, my church is falling into ruin. Go and repair it for me.”

Suddenly, Francis could see the sun. He could hear the birds and smell the flowers. And he danced. God had spoken to him.

Soon after that day, Francis decided to leave his family - and all of their riches - and set out on a new path. From then on, he sought out the poor and the sick. He repaired God’s ruined churches. And he loved all of God’s creatures and called them Brother and Sister.

Francis traveled from town to town, listening for God’s word and sharing his joy for the beauty of all of God’s creation. People listened to Francis, and some people decided to join him. Rich men and poor men left their belongings behind and traveled with Francis. And then, a woman named Clare, felt called to give up her rich life and live by the same simple rules as Francis. Francis and Clare were great friends, and they supported each other in their new life of poverty, finding joy in serving others and basking in the glory of God’s creation.  

One day, Francis saw a great flock of birds in a meadow. “My little brothers and sisters,” he said, “God loves you. God has given you wings and beautiful feathers. It is your duty to sing to God all day long” The birds beat their wings together, and Francis blessed them as they flew up into the sky, singing all the way.

Francis lived the rest of his life celebrating the creatures of the earth, blessing them and living with them in peace. The men who followed Francis became an order of religious brothers called “Franciscans,” and the women who followed Clare became known as the Order of Poor Clares. They continue the ministry of care to the poor and the sick, and to protect and enjoy nature and all its creatures, treating them as precious gifts from God.

And so, after Francis and Clare died and many years passed, the Church began to celebrate them on special days called Feast Days. Clare’s day is in August, and Francis’s day is in October, and here we are in September, the month in-between. On this day, we remember and we celebrate the passionate and joyful work of these saints of God by welcoming animals into our midst and offering a blessing.

And we’re not the only church to bless the animals! One church, in particular, is well known for their Blessing of the Animals service. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York City, is a huge, breath-taking space, and once a year, they open their very wide, and very tall, doors to animals of all shapes and sizes.

In the book, The Blessing of the Beasts, author Ethel Pochocki, introduces us to Francesca, a cockroach, and Martin, a skunk, who live in the alley behind the St. Francis soup kitchen downtown. One day, three uptown roaches arrive in a crate of discarded supermarket vegetables. They skitter over to their downtown roach cousins to share some news.

“Wait till you hear - there’s to be a celebration in the cathedral for creatures!”

“Whatever for?” growls an old cockroach.

“It’s for Francis, the good human. They’re having a giant party and everyone’s invited. There’ll be food and music and dancing and people whose pockets we can crawl into.”

“You mean the soup kitchen’s Francis?” asks Francesca.

“The very one.”

And so Francesca shares the news with her skunk friend, Martin, and tries to convince him that they should travel uptown for the service. Martin takes a bit of convincing, since he’s all-to-aware that they might not be greeted warmly by the humans.

“We’re outcasts, my dear,” Martin says to Francesca.

But Francesca wins out, and the two of them start off at 4 the next morning to be in time for the 9 am service. After some adventures along the way, they arrive at the steps of the cathedral and hide in a yew bush to watch as the animals with their humans begin their parade through the big bronze doors.

They watch as dogs and cats of every size and color lead the march, followed by an organ grinder with a spider monkey, and then a caravan of cages carrying mice and doves, a cricket , and a raven.

A young black bear somersaults down the aisle, followed by two white wolves, three black sheep, and a chestnut horse, trotting close to her police officer.

The procession ends with an ancient gentle circus elephant. But before he begins his walk, his old eyes catch sight of Martin and Francesca peering yearningly over the collection baskets. He brings his trunk down beside Martin and says,

“Come, little brother, this is not a day for hiding. Come celebrate with the rest of us. Grab hold of my trunk; don’t be afraid. I won’t let you go.”

And so the skunk and the cockroach find themselves at the center of the festivities, perched high above the ground on the elephant’s trunk.

As the procession reaches the front of the church, a brown-robed friar raises his hand for silence and, miraculously, the babble ceases. And he begins the blessing:

“Gracious God, we give you thanks for the beauty of the earth and sky and sea, for the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers, for the wonders of your animal kingdom, and for our brother, Francis, for whom all these exist to praise God.

“Francis shows us that in the light of the eye of a camel is reflected the glory of God, in the work of a ladybug is the soul of an artist. So, all you creatures of the earth, show forth God’s glory now! Live without fear. Go in peace to follow the good road. I bless you and ask you to bless us!”

And as the friar looks up at the elephant, he sees Martin and Francesca nestled in the crook of the elephant’s trunk. And he smiles and says,

“Even you, Brother Skunk and Sister Cockroach, whom we do not usually embrace, you too have your rightful place. God has brought you here, the least of his little ones, to the head of the table, and you have behaved as royal heirs beyond reproach.”

Well, Francesca just beams, for she is, after all, a roach beyond reproach.

As the skunk and cockroach make the long journey home, Francesca wonders to Martin, “How can we proclaim God’s glory?”

Martin thinks for a moment and then shrugs. “Beats me,” he says. “I can’t be anything other than a skunk.”

______________________

So I wonder, how can we proclaim God’s glory?

How can each of us - kids and grown-ups, rich and poor, outcasts and friends - make God’s goodness and love and care known in a world that is crying out for that glory?

I wonder.

Amen.

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