Just before His Ascension, Jesus commanded the Apostles to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).
Today is the feast of St. Anthony, in whose life we see one of the most poignant responses to Jesus’s command. After his rejection by a group of heretics in Rimini, St. Anthony preached to the fish: “Listen to the word of God, O ye fishes of the sea and of the river, seeing that the faithless heretics refuse to do so” (The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, ch. 40). St. Anthony preached to the fish about the great many blessings God had given them and how they needed to honor him in response. The account continues: “At these words the fish began to open their mouths, and bow their heads, endeavoring as much as was in their power to express their reverence and show forth their praise.” Pleased with the reverence shown by the fish, St. Anthony responded: “Blessed be the eternal God; for the fishes of the sea honor him more than men without faith, and animals without reason listen to his word with greater attention than sinful heretics.” The people of Rimini were converted by this great sign.
St. Anthony’s actions are not an isolated instance, but directly follow the example of St. Francis’s preaching to the birds and many other examples of how the saints exercised dominion over all of creation. This mission toward creation is a direct response to God’s command in Genesis 1: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (v. 28). God clearly intends for humanity to exercise not only a cultural, but also a spiritual dominion over all of creation.
Jesus gave some other examples of this dominion in the Gospels: the calming of the sea, walking on the water, the withering of the fig tree, etc. The most drastic could be found in the passage: “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of amustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt 17:20). This could be considered a hyperbole to exhort us to strengthen our faith in the midst of difficult or impossible situations. For the saints, however, it is more. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (the wonderworker), for example, moved a mountain through his prayers to make way for the construction of a church. A Coptic saint, Simon the Tanner, also successfully came to the assistance of the Christians of Egypt who were threatened with death by the Sultan if they could not follow this passage of the Gospel literally.
Other examples of dominion can be found in the Old Testament and the lives of the saints: Joshua’s halting of the Jordan River and even the sun; the Prophet Elijah’s stopping of the rain; the assistance of a raven to St. Benedict; the friendship of the lion with St. Jerome and the wolf with St. Francis; St. Rose of Lima’s truce with the mosquitos and St. Martin de Porres’s with mice. The list could continue indefinitely.
What does this show us? The Gospel has power not only for salvation, but also for God’s glory in creation. God wants us to exercise dominion in healing and perfecting the world. He wants the Gospel to shine forth in all the world.
St. Paul provides us with the fullest description of the relation of our salvation to the perfection of creation:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 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: 19-23).
As beings who are a body soul unity, we contain both the material and spiritual worlds within ourselves. As Christ saves our souls, this salvation extends to our bodies also, which we will see in perfect fulfillment in the Resurrection of the Body. Through our life in the world, the grace of salvation should also be mediated to the rest of the physical world.
What does God have in mind for his creation in the end? “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1). This should not be seen as the doing away of creation, but in light of Paul’s teaching in Romans, the final completion of creation, when God will perfect his work. Paul teaches elsewhere that this culmination will occur specifically through the mediation of Christ: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). God’s plan in creation is truly that He may be all in all.
What does this mean for us? Should we imitate St. Anthony and begin preaching to the fish? I wouldn’t necessarily argue against such an inclination, but bringing the Gospel to creation can be much simpler. (My children and I recently preached a sermon to beavers, but none of them exited their lodge to listen. There must not have been enough heretics around!) In our time of consumerism, which Pope Francis has called a “throw away culture,” we can try to switch from a negative approach to dominion over nature, to a more positive one. Everything should be appreciated insofar as it can point us to God: our food, drink, clothing, home, etc. Rather than focusing on what is cheapest and easiest, we can return dignity to the simple things of life.
How can we bring God’s glory to the world right around us? As I mentioned above, we need to recognize our link to God’s physical creation through our bodies. That connection can be very enriching, as we appreciate the beauty of that creation and shape it with our hands. But the connection is not just physical. We are meant to be the stewards of the world and to free it from bondage. The Gospel’s healing grace should transform our souls, bodies, and the entire physical world for God’s glory. This may not be as dramatic as preaching to fish, but we can glorify God and bring the Gospel to all of creation in many simple ways.