We celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi this year while also mourning the extinction of some of our creaturely siblings. Eleven birds, eight mussels, two fish, a bat, and a plant have been declared extinct and removed from the endangered species list. A million species continue to be threatened with extinction, some within decades. St. Francis helps us to see why this matters not only to the survival of our planet but also to our faith and, in particular, to our worship.
Granted, Christian worship has witnessed a flood of new, creation-sensitive worship materials over the past few decades. These range from prayers, hymns, sermon aids, intercessions, blessings, lament, and entire new rituals, to a whole new season in the Christian year dedicated to creation. This season ends today, with the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Add to these ecologically-attuned ritual developments a rethinking of what constitutes the earth community. Human earthlings have learned much, for example, about forests, with trees now recognized as interacting beings that live in community, and nourish, support and protect each other. Rethinking other-than-human creatures has affected thinking about ‘the human’ also. In particular, human beings are now understood as sharing with all other living creatures on planet earth a common genetic ancestry. We are genetic kin with all that is and ever has been. This thread of genetic similarity connects human beings to the history of life back to a single common ancestor. The very nature of the DNA code witnesses to this single origin of life more than 3.5 billion years ago. But what does all this have to do with Francis of Assisi, and with worship?
My answer is that the time is now to situate Christian worship within the much older, more ancient practice of primordial praise – a praise that arose “when the morning stars began to sing,” according to the creation story embedded in Job 38. Human prayer and praise are late-comers in this cosmic praise, entering this primordial chorus only quite recently in the close to 13.8 billion years old universe. Do we really want to continue to focus, in our liturgical reflections, on the worship of God that emerged only with homo sapiens? St. Francis, I think, intuited the answer to this question. Or rather, he lived it — long before it emerged for us.