1st Sunday in Lent — February 21, 2021

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
Lent 1B

Increasingly, Christians have sought ways to include animals in the liturgical life of the church.

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Our Catholic and Anglican friends customarily observe a “blessing of the animals” in their worship life every October on the Feast Day of St. Francis. Many Presbyterian congregations have begun to include animal blessings among their annual rituals in order to honor relationships with beloved pets whose lives are closely linked with our own. This past October, even in the midst of pandemic lockdown, some of my friends found a way to bless their dear pets online. For those who missed this in October, the first Sunday of Lent provides another occasion for reflection on human relationships with other creatures, for two of the texts featured in the lectionary explicitly mention them.

The first lesson for this Sunday (Genesis 9:8-17) narrates God’s eternal covenant promise to all living things. The Genesis narrative began with divine blessing of animals, as God created swarms of living creatures, birds and sea monsters and called them good (Genesis 1:20-23). In Genesis 9, the story of divine covenant with Noah, God restores the earth after the great flood by making covenant with “every living creature,” including “the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth” (9:10). As a sign of this covenant with Noah, his descendants and every living thing, God puts a rainbow in the sky in order to remember the covenant with creatures great and small. As commentator Sib Towner observes, God’s promise “touches the lives of the nuthatches and the hippopotami. … They have a future too. It was not their sin that brought them ruin in the Flood, but ours. So also their future will be deeply intertwined with ours.”

That is a sobering and alarming reality – that the future of animal life is deeply intertwined with our own – but one that has become ever more painfully evident as we struggle to cope with the challenges posed by climate change. For decades, scientists have been issuing urgent warnings about the devastating effects of human-caused climate change on all life. The dire prospect before us as a result of climate change is that rising sea levels will bring devastation to the lives of millions of people around our globe in the forms of massive starvation, drought, disease and perpetual war for precious resources; animal life will also suffer. Indeed, the destruction of ecosystems has already threatened death to countless species and forced unprecedented animal migration. Given the grave impact of human activity on the well-being of all creation, theologian Norman Wirzba claims that we are living in a new era (that of the “Anthropocene”), which is to say, an era in which humans, rather than natural forces, have become the dominant force in planetary history. Wirzba contends that it is crucial for people of faith to see that “God’s trajectory throughout scripture has always been toward Earth rather than away from it. Christians need to reject all privatizing, escapist models of salvation and learn to participate in God’s restoring and redeeming ways with the whole world.” This entails rediscovering our kinship with the earth and all who dwell in it.

The Gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent, which narrates Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness on the heels of his baptism (Mark 1:9-15), provides further food for thought. Mark’s version of the story is far briefer than Matthew’s or Luke’s, but it includes a distinctive accent: Jesus was “with the wild beasts” during his forty days in the wilderness (1:13). Richard Bauckham, one of the pioneering scholars in ecological readings of Scripture, points out that Jesus encounters three nonhuman realities in the wilderness in Mark: Satan, wild animals and angels. Satan and the angels represent, respectively, enemy and friend. But what about the wild animals placed between the two, in whose company Jesus also found himself in the wilderness? At first glance, we might assume they are menacing creatures, dangerous enemies in a habitat that belongs to them. But Bauckham sees them as enemies of whom Jesus makes friends. Mark’s description of Jesus as “with the wild beasts” bears no suggestion of hostility or resistance; rather, it conveys the overcoming of enmity and Jesus’ peaceable presence with the animals. The language of “being with someone” elsewhere in Mark conveys close, friendly association. “With” is the language of love. Indeed, Bauckham contends that Mark’s story evokes Isaiah’s vision of messianic peace (Isaiah 11), one that extends even to the animal world, in which animals are no longer threatening predators or prey. In the vision in Isaiah, humans and other animals will live together in the peace and harmony of paradise. This is one of the many respects in which the reign of God draws near in Jesus, embodied in his life and ministry.

In our context, humans have become a far greater threat to wild animals and their habits than they are to us. Thus, Bauckham finds it well worth noting that Jesus’ companionship with wild animals highlights how he preserves “their independent value for themselves and for God.”  Jesus leaves them in their wilderness, “affirming them as creatures who share the world with us in the community of God’s creation.”

A further perspective is also worth pondering on the first Sunday of Lent: rediscovering our kinship with animals – respecting and blessing them – connects us deeply to ourselves. In her groundbreaking book, “Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature,” British philosopher Mary Midgley opens with a remarkable statement: “We are not just rather like animals; we are animals. Our difference from other species may be striking, but comparisons with them have always been, and must be, crucial to our view of ourselves.” If this is so, when we think deeply about our kinship with other animals, when we respect and bless them, we are respecting and blessing ourselves. Perhaps it could even be said that every Sunday entails a “blessing of the animals” as we are reminded of God’s calling to love our neighbor as ourselves — neighbors that include all the living things on earth, which have been created and blessed by God as good. Surely love of neighbor extends beyond other human animals to embrace wild creatures great and small! It can even be said that the earth itself is our kin, formed as we were from the topsoil of the fertile land (Genesis 2:5).

Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr taught that every encounter with another person moves us out of our insularity. He added that in every encounter, there is a “third” party” involved (God), making it a trialogue. And that third party “does not come to rest until the total community of being has been involved.” In our time and place, it would be well for us to expand Niebuhr’s important insight to include encounter with nonhuman, as well as human, others. Every encounter with another creature moves us out of insularity toward involvement with the whole community of being! Think on that as we begin the journey through Lent.

This week:

  1. Consider God’s covenant with “every living creature” in Genesis 9 and how animal life is intertwined with ours. How does this covenant inform your understanding of animals and why they matter?
  2. Ponder rainbows you have seen and their reminder of God’s covenant with every living creature. How does this symbol and reminder expand your understanding of God and God’s preservation of life on earth?
  3. Norman Wirzba claims that we are living in a new era – that of the Anthropocene – in which humans have become the dominant force, and menace, in our planet’s history. Would you agree? Why, or why not?
  4. Jesus’ companionship with wild animals in the temptation story highlights his honoring and preserving their independent worth. What does this story suggest to you about animal welfare?
  5. Have you ever participated in a blessing of the animals? What was that experience like? Could it be said that every Sunday can entail a blessing of animals, as we hear God’s call to love neighbors that include nonhuman creatures?
  6. In what ways does every encounter with another creature move us out of insularity?

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