By Peter T. Manzo
God made people and animals to be partners in life and play, but humans broke the paradise relationship that God had established. And the consequence was death; we became subject to death. The Bible tells us that “death came through a human being” (2 Cor. 15:21). But this deadly infection did not stop at the borders of our species. The animals, innocent though they were, also became subject to death. Our partners and companions fell under the same penalty.
It was the start of the struggle between good and evil, foretold in Genesis 3:15, and continuing till today. Again and again God called us back into covenant with him, as Eucharistic Prayer C reminds us. As if to lay the facts before our eyes, God makes one of these covenants with humans and our animal partners together. It’s the great rainbow covenant with Noah on behalf of all creatures. God promises not to destroy humans or animals by flood: “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen. 9:15-16). God sees us in partnership with the animals and covenants with them and us.
It should not surprise us that God sees the animals as our partners. Repeatedly they have been God’s special instruments to help us in the war between good and evil. Wasn’t it Noah’s dove that God used to signal the habitability of Earth? (Gen. 8:8-12). When Elijah was forsaken by all, God had a raven bring food to him in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:4-6). When the king sought to have Daniel devoured, the lion refused to harm so much as a hair on Daniel’s body (Dan. 6:22). Jonah was saved from the sea and returned to the shore by a great fish (Jonah 1:17ff.).
Most intriguing to me was Balaam’s donkey. Balaam set out to do what God had told him not to do, and to go where God had told him not to go. The Lord decided to send his angel, even “the angel of the Lord,” to stand in the path and block the way of Balaam. Balaam did not see the angel, but his donkey did (Num. 22:21-41).
I wonder if any of us have had a similar experience. So often I have been feeling down, and out of nowhere, my dog Clarence the pug would come prancing to me, even jump on my lap, to lift my spirits at just the right moment. It makes me wonder whether my guardian angel summoned him, exactly when I needed it. If Balaam’s donkey could see the angel, why couldn’t my dog Clarence?
Animals were called by God to a solemn responsibility. Over the centuries, how many animals were sacrificed in the temple to atone for human sin? See, for instance, the offering prescribed in Leviticus 5:5-6. Most important was the Passover Lamb, whose blood saved the Israelites from extermination in the days of Pharaoh and prefigured Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. What prefigurement could be nobler than that? John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus with these words: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Was God being some kind of fiend in demanding that animals die to satisfy his blood lust? Much to the contrary, I submit that the animal sacrifices were directed to our sensibilities. We love our animals. And to see them die in connection with our sins was aimed at our hearts, to show us that death comes because of our sin, and hence to motivate us to sin no more. These animals play a role even in our repentance.
With animals playing so great a role in salvation history, does it make any sense to think they are a throwaway in God’s plan? Are they to flair into existence ever so briefly then fizzle out, never to be seen again? The Bible seems to state otherwise. As Paul put it, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8: 22-23). Notice: the whole creation, not just humans! The whole creation is being made new. No lesser a holy man than Saint Francis of Assisi preached his most famous sermon to birds.
What lies ahead? The whole creation is to be renewed. God is making a new heaven and a new earth, as described in Revelation 21 and 22. It consists of mineral, vegetable, and animal. The city is described as being made of pure gold (Rev. 21:18). It contains the “tree of life” (Rev. 22:2). Its gates are from the shells of mollusks: “pearly gates” (Rev. 21:21). The prophet Isaiah tells us that the wolf and the lamb lie down together, and so do the leopard, the goat, the calf, and the lion (Isa. 11:6-10). If that were spoken of today’s animals, only half of them would get up alive. It must be speaking of what lies ahead.
A key to understanding what lies ahead is another prophecy about the Second Coming of Christ. “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Isa. 40:5). What does flesh mean? The Hebrew word is basar, which means “bodies of humans and animals, living and dead.”
That’s my biblical argument that animals share in the gift of resurrection, just as they shared in the penalty of death. It’s only just. But I have a subjective reason for believing we will see our pets in the resurrection. On May 21, 2011, I “put to sleep” my faithful pug Clarence. He had been part of our family for 11 years, from when the kids were toddlers. Clarence was special from the first time I saw him.
He helped me write sermons. When I got stuck, suddenly I would hear him prancing down the basement stairs to my study. He would run up to me, wag his tail, maybe bark or snort, and so delight me that I’d get unstuck. He was a joy for eleven years, but time took its toll. As he aged, he started to lose the ability to use his hind legs. For the last year of his life, he gradually lost the ability to climb stairs. He had to be carried. My wife and three children knew it was time to “put Clarence to sleep,” to use the euphemism. I resisted, but in time I succumbed.
The last night, I carried Clarence down to my study in the basement. I put him on the floor next to my desk, and I wept like a baby, recalling our happy times together. I thanked him for all the cheer he had brought to our home. The next morning, we solemnly put the leash on him for the last time, and set out to the vet.
When we arrived, I was still weeping. Finally I lifted him to the vet’s table. I offered a prayer of thanks to God for creating Clarence, and for guiding him from a kennel in the Midwest to a pet shop on Route 22 in north Jersey, where my wife found him and brought him home, where he walked into our hearts. He seemed so peaceful. Then I asked him, “Clarence, do you forgive us for what we are about to do?” Do you know what? Clarence gave me a kiss. Then I knew it was okay. I told the doctor to proceed. Clarence never liked to have his nails trimmed. He resisted having anyone hold his paws. But this one time, he let the doctor take his front left paw, where the doctor injected the fluid. I watched him dissolve, so it seemed, to the other side of life.
At last I said, “Clarence, do you know how much I love you?” But the vet said, “He’s gone now. He cannot hear you. He’s dead.” Then the doctor started to feel around Clarence’s chest. He got out his stethoscope and began to listen. Then he announced, “His heart is still beating. I’m going to have to give him two cc’s directly into the heart to stop it.”
I like to think that that heart beating after his death was the only way Clarence could communicate to me from his new home. That beating heart told me that he knew how much I love him: with a love that survives death. And that was the same love he had for me. That’s my subjective reason for believing that I will see Clarence again in the resurrection. How often I play in my mind Handel’s setting of Isaiah 40:5: “And the glory, the glory of the Lord — shall be revealed,” and when I come to the finale “and all flesh shall see it together,” I see Clarence standing there with me, joining in the chorus of praise to our Savior.
The Rev. Peter T. Manzo is rector of St. Bartholomew’s Church, Cherry Hill, New Jersey. This essay is adapted from a sermon he preached in October 2011.