Feast of St. Francis - Pentecost XVII - October 2, 2022
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Job 39:1-18 + Ps 121 + Romans 12:9-21 + Matthew 11:25-30
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
It is as fleeting and ephemeral, as it is certain and unmistakable. That moment, however brief and indefinable, however ineffable and transitory, however much, in its subtlety and elusiveness, beyond anything reason can affirm or catalogue or quantify. You know grace when you encounter it: you know blessedness when you understand you entire life, fleeting, beautiful, fragile, is but the width of a hairline in the vast infinite continuum of space and time.
Whether it comes as a realization of the fundamental unity of all things; or a conviction that you are loved beyond measure or an inexplicable dissolution of the boundary between the person you have come to think of as your “very self” and everything else; when you glimpse, even for just a moment, your infinitesimal smallness and the infinity of the cosmos. When you know the very nature of things, the very essence of all that is, to be “blessed,” not as if it were an additive: as something you do…or bestow…or impart…
But rather “blessing” as the very essence of: “Capital-R” Reality. When we understand not merely that we possess the power to bless, but that we live and move and have our being in pure blessedness. And that we are not as much its medium, but its recipient, or better, “participant.”
This is what we call (for lack of a better term) the “mysterious,” the “mystical,” the “numinous.” And any pure experience of it, is as impossible to prove as it is impossible to deny. Some might suggest these moments of bliss, unity, or transcendence are little more than synapses firing in your brain, an unexpected and inexplicable release of endorphins, or perhaps nothing more than the byproduct of something you ate last night.
Yes, yes, and yes.
But how else would God communicate with sentient flesh except through the very faculties of our minds and bodies, our imaginations, and dreams, or the chemical reactions that are fired as a result emotions, or beauty, or grief, or the steady breathing induced by meditation, or indeed, of one too many serrano peppers in that taco Fernando made for me last night. If we sentient creatures are, indeed, what spirit looks like in a material universe, then synapses and body chemistry, and dreams, and imagination are but the very means, the only means, by which we can perceive, make sense of, and communication of divine grace and blessing. How else would we?
If we are not merely souls trapped in the prison of our physical bodies (as the Gnostics would have us believe), but instead realize our bodies to be the very extension or expression of our souls in the world, we begin to better appreciate how it is that our bodies have evolved to be recipients and transmitters of Grace: the capacity not only to perceive beauty and blessedness of all things, but to be touched and transformed by it.
In the Old Testament, blessing is often presented as an efficacious power that emanates from the “blesser” to the blessed like an irrevocable force that can be neither retracted or rescinded, as we see, for example, in the story of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Although their sons, Esau and Jacob, were born only moments apart, the birth right – that is, the blessing and inheritance of their father – belonged to the elder, Esau. But in exchange for a meager bowl of stew, Esau is duped into giving up his birthright to his younger brother Jacob. As Isaac lay dying, blinded by old age, Jacob disguises himself as Esau, and enters his father’s chamber asking for his blessing. Tricked by the plot, Isaac blesses Jacob and with it, bestows upon him his entire inheritance – the blessing and birthright of the first-born. When Isaac learns what happened, Esau pleas with him to reverse his blessing and give it to him instead. Broken hearted for Esau, Isaac tearfully explains that it is too late. The blessing has gone out of him to Jacob and he cannot rescind it.
Indeed, such blessings over something, upon someone, or for the benefit of another, are commonplace throughout the scriptural narratives, no less than in the church today. We lavish blessings upon those we love, over the sacred objects we dedicate to God, and upon the symbols that speak to us of God’s grace and abiding presence. We bless one another, no less than the bread and wine at the Eucharist, or the water that fills our baptismal fonts, or the oils administered for healing and consecrating; or pendants, or prayer beads…or (as we will do today) – we bless our beloved beasts.
Yet, each of these blessings, from Isaac and Jacob, to holy water, to our pets, have as their foundation, an implicit assumption, namely, that blessing is a kind of “value added” to what already is. That is to say, blessings are largely understood as extraneous or external to the deep-down essence of things. Something we impart on the “mundane,” “profane” or “secular,” thus transforming it into the sacred, the holy, the sanctified. That is…until we find ourselves immersed in one of those indescribable blips of awareness, those fleeting insights in which we are permitted, for whatever reason and however instantaneously, to peer behind the veil of what we know, beyond the veneer of our dualistic minds to see that Reality (“capital-R”) is essentially, and by its very created nature: blessed.
The gift of this insight is to realize that to bless what we love is not after all to impart something extraneous, but to evoke what is most essential to all things because nothing – absolutely nothing – has come into being apart from the blessed hand of the Creator. Perhaps, we might suggest, blessedness is to reality what wetness is to water or what silence is to light. Imagine how strange it would be to pray a blessing over water, asking God to make it wet.
So why bless anything at all? What is the point of our words and rituals and invocations? What can our meager incantations and rituals do to bless water? To make it holy when every last molecule of water, by the fact of its very existence, can only have flowed from the very abyss, the ‘font’ of divine love? Brought into being from the very heart of God?
Perhaps, blessing is the efficacious means of drawing forth the inherent blessedness of all things, and in doing so, to consciously transforms our relationship with those things, or people, or places, or yes, our beloved beasts.
I believe it was St. Theresa of Avila [sic: it was Therese of Lisieux] who said we must learn to treat the dust mop with the same care as the eucharistic chalice and plate, not to denigrate the sacred vessels but rather to elevate our awareness of the sacredness, the blessedness, of what we have come to think of as the mundane and ordinary.
Similarly, the consecration of Bread and Wine in the Eucharist not only transforms those elements into the Body and Blood of Christ, but just as importantly, indeed just as miraculously, this transformation of Bread and Wine ultimately effects the transformation of our very hearts. Indeed, our eucharistic proclamation, “see who you are, become who you see” is as much a recognition of the Eucharist as the mystical body of Christ as it is an affirmation that we too are Christ’s mystical body. A mystical body of which we partake even before the eucharist and apart from it, as Jesus teaches in Matthew’s gospel: “Wherever two or three are gathered there am I among you” (Mt. 18:19-20).
And thus, the paradox: In the consecration of bread and wine, Christ is literally presentified – made present—to a community that is already an extension of Christ’s body in the world. And yet in consuming Christ in the sacrament, it is indeed Christ who consumes us, making us ever-more so members, participants, and extensions of Christ’s mystical body, in the breaking of the bread and in sharing the cup.
So affirms our post-communion prayer, even in this very liturgy, as we pray:
“In the transformation of bread and wine, let the Incarnate Christ be not only revealed to us, but in us, so that we may be transformed evermore-so into the Body of Christ.”
And this to me speaks of the already and not-yet-ness of blessing. Blessings evoke what is already essential to the blessed nature of all things even as those same blessings invite us into something new: a new relationship, a transformed relationship, with the very thing, or person, or critter (as the case may be) whom we seek to bless.
A deeper relationship in which we recognize not only that we have the power to bless, but that the very things we desire to bless are themselves blessings unto us. As we join with churches throughout the world today, in honor of the Feast of St. Francis, we too will share in the traditional blessing of the animals; without a doubt, among my greatest joys as a priest. Indeed, even as we prepare to impart our blessings upon them, I am reminded of a sign I saw in the room of the animal rescue shelter where we were presented with Forrest on the day of his adoption.
The sign read: “Who Rescued Who?” (footnote: grammatically speaking I am fully aware that the sign should have read “Who rescued whom?” But I can forgive the grammar as I realize we are speaking canine English after all…).
The point is, while we like to think of ourselves as having rescued our beloved beasts from a kill-shelter or a feral life, eking out a meager existence on the streets of God-knows-what town, and whatever trials await an animal trying to survive the urban wild, perhaps the best kept secret known among those who work in rescue shelters, and we who adopt from them: is that what we call “rescue” is a two-way street. We may well rescue them from a much harsher, dangerous, and lesser life, but any pet-parent knows full well that what our feathery, scaley, furry little children give us in return is immeasurably greater.
Let us then, not presume to bless them before acknowledging that they, themselves, are, in their very essence, a blessing to us. Perhaps then it is not a stretch to ask ourselves today, “Who blesses whom?” As the Desert Father, Abba Xanthios, long ago observed, “My dog is better than I am, because he loves and does not judge.” Do our words and rituals really have something to offer – some added benefit-- that is not already inherently, indeed, “essentially” there if only we have eyes to see?
Indeed, they do: fundamentally, the act of blessing awakens us to the already and not yet, to the essential blessedness of all things even as our blessings awaken us to the very way we live into the blessed, indeed, sacred bond we share with all life, all things, all beings in all moments. That with Francis, then we might ourselves learn to echo the constant refrain of his most beloved of prayers:
Laudato si! Laudato si! Laudato si!
Blessed be! Blessed be! Blessed be!
And may you come to know yourself as blessing even as you are blessed.
+ The Three in One and One in Three.