One does not expect a divine rebuke on an Easter Sunday morning....
It is our practice in our family that, given our boys' autism, church attendance is done by, um, delegation. Which means that I tend to go by myself and 'represent' the family at Mass. This is necessary as autism is a condition which generally precludes putting the boys into large crowds of people; they become very uneasy in crowds and want to leave as soon as possible. Since we wish to avoid scenes (and disturbing the other attendees) we've reluctantly decided that this is what is needful at this point in the boy's lives.
I snuck into a local suburban parish–call it St. Alfonzo's–for the 12:00 Noon Easter Mass, figuring that the early birds would have filled the earlier Masses and that parking (and a seat) would be somewhat easier. Bad move, of course. By the time I got there the only parking was on the football field temporary parking area and by the time I got to the church proper the only seat was found in the second to last row. I squoze by and took a seat.
The church was full and rejoicing; the choir, of fair to good quality, was belting out hymns of praise as the crowds took their seats. Then the Lector stood, and, prior to the entrance, announced in a cheery voice: "Welcome! Welcome to St. Alphonzo's! Please stand and greet those around you!"
So we did.
Standing before me was an elderly woman, ancient of years with a grey-white crown of hair and deepset wrinkles, clearly well into her eighties; to her left, a couple in their mid fifties. To her right was what appeared to be a large woman in an ugly salmon colored frock; she did not bother to turn to me to shake my hand.
"Our entrance hymn today is Jesus Christ is Risen Today. Joint us as we greet our celebrant, Father Vivian ....."
And the congregation began to sing:
Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once, upon the cross, Alleluia!
Suffer to redeem our loss, Alleluia!
I joined in, in full voice; this has always been my favorite Easter hymn.
But as I sang, something jarred.
As the rest of the crowd sang, I heard a noise from the pew in front of me.
It can best be described as the groan of a wounded cow, an ugly sound, that only vaguely seemed related to the song we sang.
Aaaah ann annn aaaaa ann annn, allllllllllannnnnn......
I looked around, and suddenly realized the source of the sound: the woman in the row in front of me... the one wearing the ugly salmon smock.... was making this sound.
Part honk, part wail, like a calf, like a lamb, it was ... indescribable. A musical horror.
And as her face turned toward me, I suddenly realized: this woman, clearly in her forties or later, had Down syndrome.
And the woman with the crown of grey hair before me was her mother.... still caring for her, holding her hand.
For just a moment I felt annoyance: why was she interrupting the hymn? Why didn't she stay home, like my kids?
The woman was here to celebrate the risen Christ.
I flushed with shame.
Why was I angry at the presence of this woman? No, she couldn't carry a tune in a sack. But who cared? Who was I to think she had no place on this day of Resurrection?
This woman is one of a disappearing breed.
You realize of course that, between DNA testing of the yet to be born, and liberal abortion laws, the Down Syndrome child has almost disappeared from the face of the Earth. Less than one in ten are allowed to be born now. This woman, distorted at conception with an extra chromosome, was one of a now almost-extinct breed of humans. And those who give them birth–like Sarah Palin–are reviled.
So many times (as I do in the link above) I have quoted one of my favorite novels, Morris West's The Clowns of God, in the context of my three children (who do not have Down but another illness, autism)....
And yet, when confronted with a true example of the species, I allowed her to annoy me.
It is in this extraordinary novel–which posits a Pope who resigns from the Papacy–that Christ, returned, confronts a group of His followers (including the former Pope) and reveals Himself to be the Son of the Living God.
They demand proof of this extraordinary claim.
So he gives it. He takes a small child with Down Syndrome–who is referred to using the much older term 'mongoloid'–and begins to feed the child with bread and wine. He looks at His followers and speaks to them.
I know what you are thinking. You need a sign. What better one could I give you than to make this little one whole and new? I could do it; but I will not. I am the Lord and not a conjuror. I gave this mite a gift I denied all of you – eternal innocence. To you, the child looks imperfect: but to Me the child is flawless; like the bud that dies unopened or the fledgling that falls from the nest to be devoured by the ants. This child will never offend Me, as all of you have done. This child will never pervert or destroy the work of My Father's hands. This child is necessary to you. This child will evoke the kindness that will keep you human. Her infirmity will prompt you to gratitude for your own good fortune. More! She will remind you everyday that I am who I am, that My ways are not yours, and that the smallest dust mote whirled in the darkest space does not fall out of My hand. I have chosen you. You have not chosen Me. This little one is My sign to you. Treasure her!His sign to us.
He put me in that seat to see His sign to me.
As I drove home I asked Him to forgive my arrogance.
I hope He has.