The practice of blessing animals, while it might be new and unusual for Presbyterians, actually has a long history in Christianity. It goes back at least to Francis of Assisi, which is why many churches choose early October to bless animals. Francis’ day is October 4.
Blessing animals recognizes the larger community of creation and our place in it as humans. Animals and humans were created on the same Sixth Day of creation in Genesis 1. The “dominion” God gives humans over the animals is something that has to be exercised after the example of the Lord Jesus. That is, dominion means faithful stewardship and loving care. It does not and cannot mean a careless and violent domination, for we do not see that kind of thing in Jesus.
Animals (as well as birds and fish, creatures of the Fifth Day) appear in Scripture in many places. Often they appear subtly but significantly. At his baptism, the Presence of God appears as a dove, and immediately thereafter, in the wilderness, he was accompanied by angels and wild beasts (Mark1:13). In Jesus’ life, a donkey traditionally conveys him and his mother to Bethlehem before he is born, and then to Egypt when his life is threatened. Of course, a donkey is also enlisted to bear the Savior into the holy city of Jerusalem, according to prophecy. Jesus himself is often referred to as a “Lamb,” bringing to mind the sacrificial lamb of Passover, and the two goats of the Day of Atonement.
Jesus used animals and birds as images and signs of God’s Kingdom in several places, indicating that we may see God’s saving Presence at work in God’s creatures. In this he is building on the tradition we find in Psalms 104 and 148, the two great creation Psalms. All of creation was made to praise God! Finally, animals are specifically blessed by God in Psalm 36:6, where they are counted with humans among those whom God “saves.” (The same Greek word is used in the New Testament to talk about salvation.)
We bless animals now to demonstrate our communion with and responsibility to care for God’s creation. This is a particularly important practice in our own time, when creation is so jeopardized by our rapacious economy. Human carelessness and greed are not only kicking the atmosphere out of balance by massive injections of carbon, not to mention countless other pollutants, but we have also sparked a wave of extinctions that may eliminate from the earth half the life forms God made and placed here.
In blessing animals we set ourselves with Jesus and his creation, and against the objectification, abuse, and commodification of animals (and everything else) that our economy, a systematic super-amplification of human avarice, demands. It is therefore a revolutionary act in favor of God’s life in the face of a culture of death.
In blessing animals we willingly accept our role in caring for, preserving, protecting, and loving God’s creation, this beautiful vineyard God has placed in our stewardship.