Tomorrow, Sunday December 19th at 2 p.m., New York City’s Park Avenue United Methodist Church will hold its annual Ecumenical Animal Blessing service. All friendly animals are welcome, especially dogs; the Senior Pastor, Rev. Betsy Ott,and Associate Pastor Rev.Jessica Anschutz are both dog owners.
Ott and Anschutz will share in the leadership of the service, with Rev.Ott offering the message,titled “Listen! The Animals are Talking!” and both pastors giving individual blessings afterward.
If you plan to attend this or any other animal blessing service, or you hope to bring Spot along to a holiday party or two, now is a good time for your dog to bone up on the “sit-down-stay” routine and using an “indoor voice,” so s/he doesn’t create an unholy nuisance.
Most New York City churches, such as Brooklyn’s Church of the Ascension,offer animal blessing services in October, timed to the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. But the Methodist tradition is to bless the beasts at Christmas time, “in celebration of the animals in the manger at Jesus’s birth,” explains Rev. Anschutz. “It reminds us that Christ’s coming into the world wasn’t just for people, but for all creatures, great and small.”
The service, about 45 minuteslong,consists of telling the Christmas story using the version from the book of Luke (chapter 2, verses 1-20) and singing Christmascarols that contain animal references. Those carols are, of course: “In The Bleak Midwinter,”“The Friendly Beasts,” “Away in a Manger,” “What Child is This,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
“What we do is have some singing and reading of scripture, then the message and a time of prayer,” Rev. Anschutz says. “Then we’ll invite the congregation to havetheir animals blessed. One of us will go to the back of the sanctuary and the other will stay at the front, and ushers will guide people to either of us to have their animals blessed.”
During the actual, individualblessings, the pastor will lay hands oneach animal – “If they’re friendly,” Rev. Anschutz adds. “We also give treats to dogs and cats.” All species are welcome: “We ask that people keep their pets on a leash or in their arms, orotherwise contained,” she says.
And if an animal is not easily transportable, Park Avenue Methodist welcomes people to bring photographs of their pet. “We ask people with pets to fill out a form on the day of the service, telling us their pet’s name and any special needs or prayer requests they have,so that we can include them in our blessing,” Rev. Anschutz says.
Many years ago, while my pit bull Britannia Tige (a.k.a. B) and I found ourselves under house arrest while B recovered from a near-fatal battle with Tetanus, I was deeply touched when my neighbor, a longtime regular at Park Avenue Methodist, told me then-Senior Pastor Rev. William Shillady had kindly read my dog’s name during the blessing service (Rev. Shillady would later officiate at the recentwedding of Chelsea Clinton and Mark Mezvinsky).
“I think the animal blessing service reminds us that God loves and creates all beings, even those that havefour legs or no legs or more than that,” Rev. Anschutz says. “Animals bring so much joy to people’s lives, and this is aseason where wecelebrate the coming of joy into the world through the birth ofJesus. So it’s important that we celebrate all the things that bring us joy,including our creaturely friends.”
Rev. Anschutz’s own two dogs, a pair of Boston Terriers named Bart and Roxy (pictured above), attended the Animal Blessing for the first time last year, and will be present in the sanctuary for tomorrow’s service.
“I sometimes bring my dogs to work in the office,” Rev. Anschutz confesses. “They have a blanket under my desk, and they usually fall asleep on it. I live across town on the West Side, so we’ll walk over during the Spring and Summer.And by the time we get here, the dogs are pretty much worn out!”
During the service, Rev. Anschutz will hold her dogs’ leashes until it’s time to do the blessing, then she’ll hand them off to a dogless church member, “because last year they made a whole lot of racket when they weren’t with me.” Happily, Bart and Roxy have made lots of friends at Park Avenue Methodist, so Rev. Anschutz will be covered.
Has your dog ever had a religious experience, in or out of a house of worship? Please tell us about it in the comments!