Today is All Souls' Day. It follows on All Saints' Day, when the church remembers all the faithful departed who have stood out to us for lives that especially gave us glimpses of the Holy.
All Souls' Day, then, is for everyone else in the church who has died. People who have struggled to live the faith, those lured by the temptations of the world, those whose faith is known to God alone. Today we remember that the assembly in Heaven will be larger than those on the "official" guest list we have on Earth. Who knows who might be there! Will it be many? Will it be few? I can only imagine that Heaven will be full because God is gracious and loving, merciful to the least of us.
But what about animals?
Today I read a heart-breaking story about a dog, Duncan, who saved his owner's life by barking to alert him to a fire. Duncan, sadly, did not survive; he was found curled up in his master's bed where he went when he was afraid. The thought of this dog, so faithful to his owner, dying in fear as flames surrounded him filled me to the brim with sadness. Duncan was also a boxer mix, and boxers always have a soft spot in my heart.
But what about Duncan?
For those whose Heaven is small, Duncan has ceased to exist. Because he was not human, he had nothing eternal in him. He was not in the image of God; therefore he is no more. Their Heaven is too small for God to fit.
For others, Duncan sits waiting at the "Rainbow Bridge" (Wikipedia article), waiting for his master to come. His afterlife is incomplete until his owner, Scott, has passed into death. Duncan is happy, except for one thing: he misses his owner. As kind as this image is, it leaves Duncan incomplete. His joy is half-finished, and it leaves God out of the picture. God loves Duncan deeply.
So could he be in Heaven?
Yes, yes, yes. In reading the Psalms the praise of God's mercy shines through. Psalm 145 declares that "The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made" (v. 9). Psalm 147 reminds us that God gives all the animals their sustenance; God's grace is over his entire creation.
Jesus preached, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God's sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Luke 12:6-7). Yes, in the hierarchy of values humans are worth more than animals but that is far from making animals without value! Why else would God make a covenant with not only Noah but with all the animals saved in the Ark (Genesis 9:8-17)? God cares for the fate of all creation, not just humans.
Humankind may be special in God's sight for our capacity to create, to choose the Way of Everlasting Life, to live into holiness and kindness right now, but all creation is still loved by God. If God did not love all creation, it would only be for our sake that creation endures. It would only be because humans still existed that God did not extinguish creation like a candle flame. God's plan is to redeem and consecrate his creation.
We human beings mourn over the death of beloved animal friends and pray for them. That is a glimpse of God's deep well of mercy. To pray for the fate of a humble dog? To attribute to him human characteristics of love, loyalty, devotion, fear, to make this dog a he and not an it? In our best moments, our animals participate in our humanity. They become friends with personalities. They participate in our humanity by our invitation and therefore take on the "image of God" that God has created in us.
Does God ignore it when we pray for others? Could God possibly ignore a plea to remember his humble creation who seemed to live a more Godly life than we do? Of course not.
God loves his creation deeply and will not abandon it to death. Death will not have the last answer; the fear that Duncan had in his final moments will not be the end of it. No, no, I refuse to even consider that terror and agony and isolation will ever have the final say. Christ takes this agony and terror and abandonment into himself and took it to his grave. It is all brought to God. But Christ rose from death on the third day and is robed in glory and majesty to wipe the tear from every eye! "To the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever! Amen!" (Jude 1:25)
So, Duncan, canis Dei, rejoice now, and enter into Master Jesus' rest.
May all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.