And every creature which is in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I have heard saying, “Blessing and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the lamb for ever and ever!”Revelation 5:13
The Gospels have a mission to mankind of such significance that talk about animals is rare, and then unflattering and unsentimental. Indeed the whole question of animal nature is puzzling. Like mankind, the animals were created good. But when evil attacked mankind, was the serpent, subtlest of the animals, their natural king, a victim or an accomplice? Was the serpent possessed by Satan unwillingly, or was he in on the plot?
Inclined as we are to think animals utterly innocent, it is discomfiting to see that the Bible treats the serpent and indeed animals generally as moral creatures, capable originally of good or evil, of obedience or rebellion. Thus the serpent, and presumably all of animal nature, is punished for his lying role in the temptation of Eve and Adam. The serpent knows that God has not commanded Adam and Eve to eat none of the fruit in the garden; he knows also that this imputation will taunt Eve first into defense of her status as knowledgeable and then into rebellion.
Culpable, then, and guilty, the serpent is made to crawl in the dust. And in the Old Testament animals who attack men are punished, a custom that persisted into the nineteenth century, when at least one rogue elephant was hung. Disgusting as we find such actions, they are a testimony to the residual intellectuality and even morality that tradition has attributed to animals. No owner of a dog or cat can quite believe that these are utterly amoral or completely unthinking. One sees in their sense of shame and desire to please not a conscience per se but a faint awareness of some moral good, and in their attempts to listen and understand a capacity that lies just at the edge of reason.
Before the farm was abandoned for the city, there was in the West a deep sense of the nature of tamed animals as our companions. One sees this appreciation of animals in the oxen of Laon, those mighty beasts who labored to drag the tons of Caen stone up the hill and who now look out from the high corners of the cathedral towers. Between man and the horse there would be a certain friendship, illustrated from the relation between Bucephalos and Alexander to the comradeship between Traveler and Lee, who sent greetings to his great grey companion, whom, he wrote, he had missed only once since he had left home, that is, every day.
Such awareness of our fellow-creatureliness is now long past, for in a near-perfect analogy to our treatment of our own species, animals are now typically regarded either with a cloying sentimentality or treated with callous neglect and mechanized abuse. Better to be a poodle or a Manx, cuddled and pampered, than a pig or a calf, now, in grim prescience of things to come for mankind, treated as an adjunct to agricultural processes.
Animals were involved in the fall; animals suffer, and animals require the redemption of Christ no less than man or any other part of the created order. Noah and his family were not the only creatures saved from the destroying flood, but were commanded to bring with them out of the ark “every living thing that is with you of all flesh—that they may breed abundantly on the earth.” At that point the destiny of the beasts was delivered into the hands of mankind, and while that relation was characterized by abuse as well as just dominion, from the time of Isaiah there has been the image of a pacified creation, in which lion and lamb are friends and the serpent the child’s plaything. How this redemption is effected, whether numberless sacrifices of animals as surrogates for human sin, the long-suffering of animals as beasts of burden, or their place as hunted prey, whether any or all of these are expiatory we cannot know. But we do know that the animals are redeemed by Christ and that they have a place of honor in the New Creation.
The act of the redemption of the animals is represented in the Apocalypse by the four living creatures whose task it is to sing God’s praise day and night, ceaselessly, throughout all ages. They are the lion, the king of the wild beasts; the eagle, the mightiest of the flying things; the ox, the great beast of the field; and the creature with a face like a man, this latter represented sometimes as simian, sometimes as human. The purpose is clearly to present a taxonomy of the animal realm which is complete. These four are now often associated with the four gospels, but this is an imaginal target of opportunity. In the Apocalypse, and in the earliest iconography of the Roman Church, Santa Pudenziana for example, the four living animals represent animate nature as the trees planted by the rivers of life represent the plants. Their ultimate purpose, like the purpose of all creation, is to praise God.
Although we do not know the exact means of the animals’ fall and their redemption any more than we know the exact circumstances of the angelic war in heaven—that is not part of our story—we know that when in the Mass we offer praise to God in the ancient words of the liturgy, the Sanctus, we do so with the whole company of heaven, cum Angelis et Archangelis, cum Thronis et Dominationibus, cumque omni militia caelestis exercitus, not only with the faithful angels, the saints and apostles, but also with the lion, the eagle, the ox, and the animal with a human face, and in them all the others, the bear and the giraffe, and yes, dogs and cats, and perhaps, just perhaps, the unicorn. As it was once, in that first garden, when their captain, the subtlest of all the beasts, asked his baneful question, so again, after vast millennia of silence, the animals again have voice.
The songful presence of the four living creatures is not sentimental but in the deepest sense revelatory. They are nature at its best and highest, and as such they surround the throne of God. They are full of eyes before and behind because they are full of knowledge of the Lord. Created before Adam and Eve, their participation in redemption is the primordial song of praise on which all other praise depends. The ice and snow, the stars of heaven, and the winds of God may have a song, but we do not know it. The unending song of the great animals is the presupposition of all praise. It must come first, then the song of the elect saints:
The four living creatures…do not rest day or night, saying, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come. And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne singing, Worthy art Thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.Revelation 4:6-11