Today is Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which celebrates how Jesus was presented to God in the Temple in Jerusalem, forty days after his birth. What a joyous occasion that must have been for Mary! The presentation was a ritual of the Mosaic law and a precursor to the Sacrament of Baptism that we experience under the new covenant.
I didn’t give birth to the Messiah, of course, but I remember clearly the day my son was baptized. He was a few months old and my husband and I were still acclimating ourselves to the Down Syndrome diagnosis he got at birth. My husband would eventually convert to Catholicism, but at the time he was steadfastly standing outside the Church. I was just as steadfastly intent on having our son baptized but the actual day of his baptism was an emotional challenge because my husband was so uncomfortable - and he didn’t hide it very well.
As we stood next to the baptismal font, I tried to focus on what was happening and ignore my discomfort. I was holding my son, who had been still and quiet up to that point, when our priest said, “You have put on Christ, in him you have been baptized. Alleluia, alleluia.” At those words, Nathan threw both arms up and let out a loud cry of “Aaahhehhaahh!” It could have been a coincidence, of course, but the sound was uncannily similar to the priest’s “Alleluia.” At that moment, I began to consider that rather than having a lesser understanding of God, my son might have an elevated understanding - one that I could never hope to grasp, because the veil is thinner for him - and a powerful witness of his own. My husband did eventually enter the Church, and he tells anyone who asks that our son was a big part of the reason why.
As joyous as the day of Jesus' presentation must have been for Mary, we know that His story - and hers - did not end there. During His public ministry, Jesus was not only rejected by many in the Temple, but the Pharisees, priests, and scribes accused Him of blasphemy and false prophecy, and some worked together to destroy him. You could say he was unwelcome in God’s Temple because people didn’t understand Him.
When my son was five, I enrolled him in Vacation Bible School at our parish. He only made it through the second day before we dropped out - I realized I had been unrealistic about his ability to adapt to the environment and that I didn’t properly prepare the volunteers for his needs. I vowed to do better the next year, and also believed that an additional year of maturity, coupled with having a year of kindergarten and religious education classes under his belt, would help.
The next year, to be safe, I arranged for his thirteen-year-old sister to be assigned to his class, and I was thrilled to hear that the church had asked a retired special education teacher to assist him. The first day came and went and both the assigned volunteer and my daughter said he’d had a good day. The next morning, though, about an hour before the start of VBS, I got a text. The volunteer wasn’t able to be there, so could I stay with him instead? I said no, but his sister would be with him so he should be fine. The response I received was, “We really don’t feel qualified and would feel much more comfortable if he has an adult with him. If you can’t come it would be best if he pass for today.” I was devastated.
I kept him home from VBS and spent most of the day in tears. I did not then and do not now believe that my son was unwanted at VBS, but the fear of others kept him away from his “choorch fwiends” and deprived him of the opportunity to learn about Jesus (not to mention deeply wounding his sister who took it as a personal affront). The word “qualfied” really bugged me, too. He does have Down Syndrome, yes, but at that age he wasn’t that much different from his peers. You could say my son was unwelcome in our parish VBS because people didn’t understand him.
Because the Church is filled with imperfect people, our children with special needs may, from time to time, encounter situations that make them (or us) feel unwelcome. Some individuals truly may not want them there, but most of the time these situations arise because people are fearful or have blind spots due to inexperience. When it happens, it’s natural to feel hurt or rejected.
It can be helpful at those times to remember that even Jesus was unwelcome in God’s house by many of the people who spent time there. They didn’t understand Him, and many of them were probably afraid of Him. But we know how the story ends - Jesus had an earthly mission to fulfill that couldn’t be stifled by the rejection of others. Our kids with special needs have a reason and a purpose for being here, too, and they are always welcomed by God.
Andi Sligh is a wife and mother of two children with disabilities and three dogs. She is a lifelong Alabamian, Dr. Pepper addict, Catholic convert, and former engineer who rediscovered a love of writing when she became a mom. You can find more of her writing at https://andisligh.com/