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Blessing all the creatures

By Ray Waddle

I was startled the other day to find a long, orange pheasant making his way across the back yard. He was dignified, regal and taking his time. (If he was lost, he was not inclined to admit it.) I was happy to be his spectator and add him to my other occasional critter sightings in the yard over the years: red fox, woodchuck, box turtle, raccoon, coyote.

These rare encounters always shake me out of my residential routine, reminding me that we share this living planet with a teeming nation of furtive furry personalities and feathered denizens. Seen in this light, animals are a revelation. But of what?

My favorite stained glass window scene at church has Jesus serenely holding a lamb. It’s calming. I could rest my eyes on it all morning.

Some will insist the scene depicts a metaphor: Jesus the Lamb of God, Christ the Good Shepherd. Fair enough. But I see it first as a real moment from a real life – Jesus taking a break from the debates and the crowds in order to steal a few moments with small farm animals.

I imagine the shepherd proud but puzzled that the celebrated teacher stopped by. I imagine the woolly livestock that Jesus held were afterwards given a place of honor at the trough and saved from slaughter.

It’s remarkable that this scene was preserved in history at all – that he took time out during an extremely short public ministry to spend time with creation’s speechless inhabitants.

This unusual encounter with animals in the sacred story bears a message: Jesus’ circle of regard extends beyond human disputations of law and doctrine.

We can imagine the dismay of the disciples standing nearby, notably Judas: What an inefficient use of the Lord’s time! But there were lessons to learn from watching him with the sheep. Self-forgetfulness. Fondness for God’s far-flung creatures.A spontaneous display of compassion.

Earth Day arrives soon, focusing on conservation, environmental ethics and reform. Before there was Earth Day there was a biblical image, preserved now in stained glass, that honors our encounters with the creatures of God’s earth and alerts everyone to the gift of grace and kinship of such moments.

Ray Waddle is a columnist, author and the editor of Reflections magazine, published by Yale Divinity School.

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