"If you're going to the Blessing of the Animals service, get on this side of the police barricade," said the police officer as we hurried into the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan last Sunday morning. His statement perfectly captured the ambiguities of the event. Part Christian worship service, part media event and interfaith celebration, the famous Blessing of the Animals service was a kaleidoscope of music, banners, kites, readings, dancing, incense, tourists, barking dogs, and even the odd cockroach and the Nicene Creed.
St. John the Divine, humorously called "St. John the Unfinished" due to the fact that it has been under construction with multiple delays since 1892, is the cathedral church (home of the bishop) for the Episcopal Church (USA) diocese of New York, and advertises itself as "a house of prayer for all people." Intentionally interfaith, committed to the arts, and socially active, the cathedral is perhaps most widely known for this service, now in its 20th year. Many Episcopal and Catholic churches celebrate a Blessing of the Animals on or near the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. However, St. John the Divine is without a doubt the only congregation to draw upwards of twenty photographers and a standing-room-only crowd. Crammed into the standing-room part of that crowd, we found ourselves in a varied group of people: photographers with long telephoto lenses, pet owners holding small noisy dogs, puzzled college students seated on the ground and whispering "This is too much" to each other, and a man standing next to us who, alone among the crowd by our particular pillar, joined with us in the singing and liturgical responses, forging a sudden and unspoken communion.
The service draws its inspiration from St. Francis' acknowledged love for the creation as reflected in his poem "Canticle of the Sun," a loose translation of which was sung as the opening and closing hymn. The shape of the service was the usual Sunday liturgy from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: opening hymn and collects, Scripture readings culminating with the Gospel reading, sermon, creed, prayers of the people, the sharing of peace, the offering, a Communion prayer punctuated with congregational responses, and finally the sharing of the Eucharist with the people (although only about a third of those present went up to receive it). Not every element of the service was explicitly Christian. The second reading was from the Qur'an, and the sermon and the Prayers of the People used the name of God rather than Christ. However, the Nicene Creed, the Eucharistic prayer, and other prayers and service elements were unashamedly orthodox.
Joining with the miscellaneous crowd of worshipers were the tape recorded sounds of humpback whales, used each year as part of Cathedral composer Paul Winter's "Earth Mass" musical setting of the Eucharistic liturgy. The whales showed up in the Sanctus, the response in the Eucharistic prayer which exclaims with the prophet Isaiah, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!" At that moment, as dancers twirled banners representing mythical animals and the ocean waves above the heads of the crowd in the great open vaulted space of the Cathedral dome, it did seem that all creation was praising God from the depths of the oceans to the top of the skies.
After the Eucharist, the huge bronze doors in the back of the church were opened and a parade of God's creation ensued down the center aisle. People who bring their pets to the service unannounced actually have the pets (overwhelmingly dogs, at least this year) blessed at the fair on the cathedral grounds following the service; the procession during the liturgy is prearranged to display varieties of animals. We greeted each new animal with amazement: sheep, cow, lizard, frogs, bees, turtles, eagle, owl, doves, donkey, mule, llamas, goat, camel, horse, Shetland pony, a jar of water presumably containing algae, and the aforementioned cockroaches (safely captured in a plastic canister). Unfortunately, there was no elephant, which other congregants told us had concluded the procession in previous years. Silence, elusive until that moment, gripped the many thousands of gathered people, tourists and worshippers alike. Partially, it was not to startle the animals. Partially, it was because we were startled ourselves by the amazing variety of God.
"Live without fear," the Bishop said in a prayer attributed to St. Francis' coworker St. Clare as he blessed the animals. "Your Creator loves you, made you holy, and has always protected you. Go in peace to follow the good road and may God's blessing be with you always."
And so down the stairs we went, on the correct side of the police barricade, going in peace to follow the good road.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
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