by Fr. John Breck
A lecture at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, in June 2002.
Recent discussions in the area of bioethics have focused the public’s attention almost exclusively on the issues of embryonic stem cell research and the cloning of human embryos. These are crucial issues that threaten to undermine the conviction, basic to Orthodox Christianity, that human life is inherently sacred and deserves to be nurtured and protected from conception until death.
Ethicists who share this belief in the sacredness of human life are presently caught up in cultural warfare with opposing forces whose chief motivations are potential profits for the pharmaceutical industry and preservation of the legal right to abortion on demand at any stage of a pregnancy. If the government, for example, were to acknowledge that human life begins at conception — meaning fertilization — then it would jeopardize the future of embryo experimentation and undermine the principle of unrestricted abortion enshrined in judicial interpretations of Roe v. Wade.
The dust cloud kicked up by this struggle has obscured a related matter that is equally significant in this country’s utilitarian atmosphere, which places rights over responsibilities and personal convenience over the value of persons. That is the issue of the newborn child and our social, family and ecclesial responsibilities in his or her regard. In what follows, I would like to move away from the question of the child in vitro or in utero, and turn our attention to the way God calls us to welcome the newborn infant, particularly when that child is marked by some form of genetic anomaly or physical disability.
As we advance into this new millennium, it is clear that our children are facing a situation of crisis worse than they have ever known. Children have always been threatened by poverty, forced labor, prostitution and abandonment. Today, we have to add to that list such threats as partial-birth abortion, which kills a child as it emerges from the womb; infanticide, recommended by would-be ethicists who believe a child must demonstrate a viability free of genetic defects in order to have the ‘right’ to live; together with an appalling increase in violence, both in school and at home. Recent estimates suggest that one American child in five lives in poverty and that one in six suffers from hunger. Although drug use is down relative to its levels of ten years ago, it is concentrated today in certain sectors of society — and not only the poorest — and, as the French writer François Chateaubriand said about love, it ‘devastates the souls in which it reigns.’
In 1999, the whole world came to know the name of Littleton, Colorado. This obscure western town became a symbol of the violence and wanton killing committed increasingly by youngsters against their own kind. Hospital emergency rooms are visited by a growing number of children who have been physically and sexually abused. Much of that abuse, as the media delights in informing us today, has been perpetrated by Christian parents and clergy. In Europe as well as in the United States, certain forms of violence directed against the very young have become virtually institutionalized. We may note, for example, gross neglect and abuse in the foster care system; or the incarceration of teen-agers with adults in our state prisons, where the frequency of rape, by any civilized standard, makes their punishment ‘cruel and unusual.’ And it is clear that the responsibility for these kinds of violence lies in large part with social and economic systems that favor the wealthy and the powerful over the poor and the defenseless.
In the face of all this, we can well understand why so many of our young people no longer find any meaning to life or hope in their future. In many parts of the world, children are born to become either victims or aggressors, or both (think, for example, of the generations of Lebanese and now Palestinian youths who have spent their entire childhood in a world at war).
To be sure, this is a one-sided and pessimistic view of the situation that gives too little consideration to the many children who are nourished by loving families and supported by intelligent and effective social structures. Nevertheless, there is no denying that a great many children today find themselves in a crisis not of their own making. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, as members of the Body of Christ, to seek out ways to ameliorate this critical situation, faced by our children even before the time of their birth. This is all the more necessary when it is a matter of those children marked with disabilities, who by that very fact are systematically marginalized and often threatened with extinction.
Who in fact is this one we know and welcome as ‘the newborn child’?
To answer the question, Christian anthropology refers us to christology. To understand who we are, we need to begin with the image of the eternal Son of God, who is Himself the archetype of our humanity, who became flesh by assuming the fullness of our human condition and our human destiny, including death. A mystery envelops every child, a mystery whose key lies in the image of the Christ-child. This is true whether the child in question is born thriving or born dead, whether that child is welcomed with loving affection or aborted as an unwanted nuisance.
‘When the fullness of time came,’ St Paul tells us, ‘God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law ‘ (Gal 4:4). This is the child prophesied by Isaiah: ‘Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a child, and shall call his name Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’ This child, born of a humble virgin, is described by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews in remarkably exalted language: ‘In these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world. This Son reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature, upholding the universe by His word of power’ (Heb 1:2-3). The apostle Paul adds to this extraordinary affirmation, ‘In Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in Him, who is the head of all rule and authority’ (Col 2:9-10). Every human existence finds its fulfillment in the person of Him whom the Kontakion of the Nativity proclaims as ‘this little child, the eternal God.’
The true meaning of Christ’s incarnation is revealed to us in the liturgy and the iconography of the Church. It is there that we find graphically portrayed the ‘descent’ of Him who contains in Himself the fullness, the ‘pleroma’ of divinity. By that descent — that ‘kenotic’ movement toward our fallen state (Phil 2:7) — this divine Son was able to assume our humanity and transfigure it into the glory that He possessed with the Father before the foundation of the world (cf. John 17:5).
Within the Orthodox tradition there are two principal icons that depict the incarnation of the Son of God in the person of the Christ-child. The most well known is the icon of Christmas, the Lord’s Nativity. This is an image of the ideal family, comprising Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. It is all the more ‘ideal’ because it so eloquently represents both the poverty and the abandonment that weigh upon them. These painful conditions presage the journey that the child Himself will undertake: a journey which will lead Him to the cross and to death. Even at His birth, the child is wrapped, not in swaddling clothes but in a shroud, and he is laid, not in a manger but on an altar of sacrifice. His ostensible father Joseph is shown under attack by demonic doubt concerning the paternity of this newborn infant. And Mary herself gazes into the infinite distance, contemplating the mystery of a birth that will lead ineluctably to suffering, both for the child and for His mother.
Nevertheless, as in the icons called Hodigitria or ‘Guide,’ or still more in those that evoke the Eleousa, Umileniye or ‘Tenderness,’ the principal theme of the icon of the Nativity is that of Gift, the sacred offering of the Christ-child by His holy Mother, so that in Him and by Him the world might be transformed from the corruption of death to the glory and beauty of eternal Life.
This motif appears as well in those icons known as ‘the Sign.’ This is the second sacred image which ‘represents’ — that is, which renders present and accessible in the experience of the worshipper — the mystery of God incarnate. Here, Mary appears as the Orante, the Virgin Mother who makes ceaseless supplication on behalf of the world. Bearing the Christ-child in her womb, she offers Him for the life of the world. Her womb, as the liturgical texts declare, is more spacious than the heavens, since it contains the Incomprehensible and Uncontainable One. This antinomy is repeatedly expressed by the liturgy of the Nativity feast. One of the major themes of that celebration holds that the incarnation of Christ occurred atreptos, ‘without change.’ This means that the Son of God became the son of Mary without surrendering His divinity, without changing His essential identity.
Beholding him who was created in His image and likeness, fallen because of his transgression, Jesus [sic] bowed the heavens and came down. He dwelt within the womb of a Virgin without undergoing change, in order to reform within her deformed Adam, who cried out to Him, ‘Glory to your appearance, my Redeemer and my God!’
(Compline, Nativity Vigil)
The aposticha verses of this same service declare that ‘The Word assumed flesh but did not separate Himself from the Father.’ He was God, and He remains God for all eternity.
The liturgy of the Nativity feast gives eloquent expression to this ineffable gesture of total humility, by which the Author of creation ‘humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death upon a cross’ (Phil 2:8). According to the Nicene Symbol of Faith, this ‘kenosis’ or self-abasement occurred ‘for us men and for our salvation.’
Beholding man, the work of His own hands, destined for perdition, the Creator bowed the heavens and came down. From the pure and holy Virgin He clothed Himself in the fullness of human existence and truly took flesh, for He has covered Himself with glory.
(Matins of Nativity, Ode 1)
The salvation accomplished by the incarnate Son, however, is not limited to delivering us from perdition, from liberating mankind from bondage to death and corruption. If the eternal God became a little child in the womb of the Virgin, it was in order to lead us along the pathway known in Orthodox ascetic tradition as the way of ‘purification, illumination and deification.’
O our defender Christ, you have covered with shame the enemy of mortal man, now that you have ineffably taken flesh as a shield and, in this form, you have given us the gift of deification. For it is the desire for that gift that caused us to fall from above into the pit of darkness.
(Matins of Nativity, Ode 7)
These sacred images and liturgical texts recall several themes that throw light on the mystery of the incarnation. At the same time, they clarify another mystery: that of the newborn child. If the eternal Word is the archetype of the human person — if He is both the First and the Last Adam — He is also, by virtue of His nativity in the flesh, the archetype of every child who is born into this world. As Author of life, as Creator and Redeemer, He submits Himself to the conditions to which every child is subjected.
Today is born of the Virgin the One who holds all creation in His hands.
As a mortal, He, the incomprehensible One, is wrapped in swaddling clothes.
As God, He is laid in a manger, He who in the beginning established the heavens.
He takes as food His mother’s milk, He who poured out manna to His people in the wilderness.
He, the Bridegroom of the Church, invites the Magi.
He, the son of the Virgin, accepts their gifts.
We worship your Nativity, O Christ.
Grant us to behold your holy Theophany!
(Nativity, Troparion of the Ninth Hour)
The divine child, born of a Virgin, accepts to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, in order to liberate mankind, like Lazarus, from the shroud of the dead and raise us from the depths of death and corruption. He who fed the Israelites in the desert feeds Himself from His mother’s milk, in order that He might become Eucharist, the heavenly Bread that feeds the multitudes. He who invites the Magi accepts their gifts, in order to foreshadow the offering of His own life as the supreme Gift, the supreme sacrifice that works out the world’s salvation.
God accepts to humble Himself through the Incarnation for a single reason: because He loves the world He has created and longs to seek and find, to save and glorify the children who bear His divine image. His purpose is to restore Adam to his original purity and innocence. To do so, He Himself assumes the humility and innocence proper only to little children. For children are the very image of the Innocent One, the spotless Lamb who represents the perfect offering to God. According to St Gregory Palamas, “Before the mind becomes embroiled with them, the passions which are naturally implanted in children conduce not to sin but to the sustaining of nature. For this reason they are not at that stage evil.” [“To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia,” 42; The Philokalia vol. IV, ed. Palmer, Sherrard and Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 310.]
The child is thus the icon of Christ, as Christ is the icon, the prototypical image, of the child. This includes not only the newborn, but all those who become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 18:3f; 19:14; cf. John 1:12).
In the Church’s iconography and liturgy we thus find a great many themes that illustrate the intimate relation which exists between the incarnate Christ and the newborn child. There is the theme of the family, united by prayer and by love; the theme of the mother who receives from God the child which she will offer back to Him as a sacrifice of praise; and the theme of the Innocent One, whose vocation is to offer Himself to others wholly and freely, with a love that knows no limit.
Who, in fact, is this newborn child we are called to welcome, protect, nurture and love?
He or she is the image of Christ, the Son of God, who — ‘without change’ — became the son of Mary, for the salvation of the world and the deification of all those who receive Him with thanksgiving and devotion. ‘To all who received Him,’ the evangelist John tells us, ‘to all those who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God’ (1:12). To become a child of God is to return to our original state of innocence, purity, beauty, but also of vulnerability, which characterized the first human person, fashioned in the image of his creator. This is the ‘Adamic state,’ proper to every newborn child. Yet it is a state soon lost in a world of sin, where the innocent, inside or outside the womb, are massacred like the little children of Bethlehem.
The newborn child bears within himself the divine image, the image of Christ, and with that image comes the possibility for deification. But this tiny infant also bears within himself the seeds of corruption. The continuous and arduous struggle between the two — between deification and corruption — will lead him inevitably along the pathway of suffering and death. The newborn child is an image of the Christ-child; but he is also an image of Christ crucified.
If the child born into this world is indeed an image or icon of Christ, he will also become the image of his parents. We live in an age in which the traditional role of the parents has been largely rejected as a relic of a distant past. For virtues such as religious faith, altruism, obedience, honor, rectitude, and civility, we have substituted egotistical attitudes of auto-idolatry, self-gratification, in-your-face aggressiveness, and cutthroat competition — tempered only by a concern to think and act in a way regarded by others as ‘politically correct.’ And parents are expected to inculcate such distorted attitudes in their children. Pressures behind such expectations come from our present social and cultural milieu, conditioned as it is by television, films and other media. Quite naturally, our children, like their parents, are increasingly obsessed with the Internet: an extraordinary instrument of communication, but one which transmits anything and everything in the name of ‘information.’
Rather than lose ourselves in a fruitless quest for some idealized pre-technological age of the past, though, we need to ask a question. Is it possible for us today to reconsider the role and the responsibilities of parents in a way that stresses spiritual values over self-centered attitudes? If not, then we are facing a greater crisis than most of us imagine. For the first responsibility of parents — in fact, their most basic vocation — is to reflect to their children the image of God, an image of truth, faithfulness, integrity and love.
The parents, however, do not bring up their children in isolation. Their role in raising their offspring is complemented by the activity of other members of the Church. At least four basic actions are indispensable for raising our young appropriately, actions that need to be undertaken and sustained both at home and in the parish community. Children need to be welcomed, nourished, educated and loved.
The welcoming of a child is a complicated matter that requires a great deal of preparation. First of all, the parents need to prepare themselves to assume both the pregnancy itself and the material and moral obligations that become theirs following the birth. Preparation of this kind requires an ongoing attitude of prayer, by which the parents make a ceaseless offering to God both of their child and of themselves. Yet their prayer is necessarily the prayer of the Christian community as well.
The eighth day after the birth, the child receives a name, often of a saint commemorated on the day of the birth. This creates a vital link between the newborn infant and a member of the eternal communion of saints. The prayer offered by the priest at the laying on of hands asks God ‘that the light of your countenance might shine upon your servant (Name), and that the Cross of your only Son be impressed on his/her heart and thoughts.’ This is a request for a blessing. But it goes on to ask for protection against ‘the vanity of the world and every evil counsel of the enemy.’
As soon as the name is given, the Church by its liturgical prayer associates the newborn child with Christ. This unites the child with Christ’s crucifixion, and also with His victory over demonic power and over death. This intimate link between the child and Christ will be reaffirmed when the child is baptized, chrismated and then ‘churched,’ introduced into the communion of the faithful on the fortieth day after the birth. The final prayer offered for the mother on that day captures just this emphasis.
O God the Father Almighty, who by thy mighty-voiced Prophet Isaiah didst foretell unto us the incarnation through a Virgin of thine Only-begotten Son and our God; who in these latter days, by thy good pleasure and the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of us men, and because of thy boundless compassion, didst graciously will to become a babe by her .Do now, O Lord, who dost preserve children, bless this infant, together with his/her parents and his/her sponsors; and grant that, in due season, he/she may be united, through water and the Spirit of the new birth, unto thy holy flock of reason-endowed sheep, which is called by the name of thy Christ.
The Church’s welcome of the newborn child thus comprises not only baptism, recognized as the rite of initiation, but also the giving of a name, which signifies for the child that he or she is inscribed in the Book of Life (Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5; 21:27).
This ecclesial welcome is, of course, to be more than a mere formality. To insure that it represents a genuine integration of the child into the family of God, which will provide appropriate nurturing and spiritual formation, the community appoints Godparents: spiritual elders, who assume primary responsibility for the religious and spiritual development of the child, all the while embracing that child with abundant love and affection. The godparents are called to work in close relationship with the parents and the parish community, to provide the child with needed spiritual nourishment and training. It is they, as well, who, during childhood trials or adolescent crises, offer loving support not only to the child but also to the child’s parents.
It’s deeply regrettable that we have lost any real sense for the importance of godparents in the life and formation of our children. The Church in its wisdom grants to these sponsors roles and responsibilities which the parents are incapable of assuming because of their lack of objectivity. The newborn child needs to be welcomed, nourished, educated and loved, not only by its own parents, but also by the Church family, represented above all by the godmother and godfather. Accordingly, it is incumbent on us to recover the true meaning of sponsorship within the Church and to support by every means possible the service rendered by godparents within our parish communities. Our children today are in very great need of their ministry, and it is our obligation before God to respond appropriately and decisively to that need.
Everything we have said to this point makes it clear that the child who comes into the world possesses an absolute and inviolable personal value. The similarity between his image and that of Christ derives from the fact that from conception that child bears the image of his Creator. From his birth, and by the very fact of his existence, he bears a visible witness to the beauty, the innocence and the humility of our Savior. Child of God and child of Adam, he is endowed with the sacred gift of life, whose ultimate purpose is to enable him to share fully and intimately in the very life of God.
But can we affirm the same thing with regard to handicapped children, those born with deformities or disabilities? If the newborn child is marked by genetic defects, if its face lacks any semblance of beauty or its brain is damaged, does that child possess the same honor and have a right to the same protection as a ‘normal’ child who is in good physical condition? If the question seems offensive, we need nonetheless to raise it today. This is because more and more self-proclaimed guardians of public morality argue that each newborn infant should give proof of its viability and its ‘human value’ before society grants it the ‘right’ to live.
That sort of attitude represents an extreme form of utilitarianism, one based on expediency run amok. And this kind of utilitarian approach is gaining ground today in Western Europe as well as in the United States. It’s enough to evoke the name of Peter Singer, for example, the Australian bioethicist, who, to the consternation of many, was hired a few years ago by Princeton University, a cultural and intellectual center esteemed throughout the world. Or we can mention Joseph Fletcher, a former priest turned agnostic, who in the 1960s gained an international reputation for his elaboration of contextual or ‘situation ethics.’ This deconstructionist approach to ethical analysis rejects every absolute norm — every standard, principle or truth — and locates the criteria for all moral decision-making within the immediate situation itself. The result is sheer moral relativism, with a consequent breakdown in respect for God and other persons. Where moral absolutes are systematically rejected, the inevitable effects of sin are to substitute expediency for principle and self interest for sacrificial love .
According to the perspective represented by Singer, Fletcher and their ilk, the human person is defined by strictly functional criteria: consciousness, for example, with the rational and motor capacities necessary to make decisions and take action. These are criteria of social utility, derived from a philosophical position that places function above being. The simple fact that one exists is no longer sufficient for that individual to quality as a ‘person,’ worthy of respect and legal protection. That individual must be able to think and act rationally, and be endowed with the capacity to contribute actively and positively to social life. Otherwise, these ethicists hold, society has no obligation whatsoever to assume the financial and psychological burdens that a profoundly handicapped person imposes upon it.
Those who preach this kind of functional utilitarianism propose a gamut of disabilities that ab ovo render the child marginalized, a prime candidate for abortion or infanticide. Others, who tend to be more conservative or traditional, will often accept abortion on demand, yet reject unconditionally the killing of a newborn child. Still, they recognize the appropriateness of refusing active and sustained treatment to children born with terminal illnesses or disabilities, such as anencephaly, Tay-Sachs disease or the Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, each of which results from genetic anomalies that bring on premature death, often within hours of birth. In such cases, as we may all agree, medical treatment should be strictly palliative. No heroic efforts should be undertaken which merely extend biological existence artificially, since in cases like these such efforts merely prolong the dying process. (This, by the way, is a rule of thumb that should apply to any terminally ill patient, that is, one whose prognosis indicates clearly that he or she is suffering the irreversible consequences of an accident or disease, and has lost all capacity for self-sustained existence.)
Ethicists such as Singer and Fletcher, however, are much more radical. They include in the category of the ‘non-viable’ — that is, those who have no claim to being ‘persons’ in the true sense — even Down’s syndrome children, those afflicted with ‘trisomy 21,’ an extra twenty-first chromosome. In Fletcher’s view, a Down’s child is not a person because of the profound intellectual deficiency that usually accompanies the anomaly. Such children, pejoratively referred to as “mongoloid,” are accordingly to be eliminated by abortion or by infanticide. [J. Fletcher, “The ‘Right’ to Live and the ‘Right’ to Die,” The Humanist 34 (July/Aug, 1974), 12-15; see also Richard C. Sparks, To Treat or Not to Treat. Bioethics and the Handicapped Newborn (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), ch. 4, esp. pp. 250ff.]
There are two comments I would like to make in this regard. First of all, the sacred character of human life — which God Himself invests in the child at its conception — does not in any way depend on the physical or mental health of the individual, nor is it a function of the quality of one’s DNA. [DNA: deoxyribonucleic acid, the genetic “blueprint” of human life, contained in the chromosomes.] The dignity of ‘person’ is bestowed by God, not by human convention. This is why an embryo, or a patient in deep coma, is and remains a ‘person’ in the fullest sense of the term. And this is why infanticide can never be sanctioned or blessed by the Church. Whereas palliative care and gestures of love offered to a profoundly handicapped infant are always morally obligatory, the expediency of infanticide, including ‘partial-birth abortion,’ must be rejected as an act of sheer murder.
The second comment I’d like to make is more personal. Anyone who has known or lived with Down’s syndrome persons knows the difficulties and challenges that arise in raising and educating them. Their physical and emotional needs can be extreme and exhausting. But those who care for them know also how much such a child — and they always remain a ‘child’ — — gives joy and love to the family and all those around them. [It is not only Down’s children who so bless a family that receives them with love. See Flannery O’Connor’s remarkable “Introduction to ‘A Memoir of Mary Ann’,” in S. and R. Fitzgerald, Mystery and Manners (NY: Noonday Press), 1962/1969, pp. 213-228.]
I often think back to the late 1960s and early 70s, when my wife and I had frequent contact with Marie (Masha, to her friends), the Down’s syndrome child of a former professor at the St Sergius Theological Institute in Paris. Every Holy Friday Masha, dressed all in black, lived the agony of the crucified Christ; and every Pascha morning she rejoiced at His resurrection. Her face was radiant and her joy palpable. The entire parish community, which had embraced her unconditionally, was profoundly enriched by her presence and her prayer.
One day we were invited by Masha’s mother to share a meal with their family. As my wife and I entered the child’s room — at that time she must have been about forty years old — we found her busy playing. All the while she was talking to a photograph of her godfather, a beloved and long-deceased priest who had also been a dear friend of ours. Masha spoke with him, just as little children speak casually with angels. There was nothing artificial about it, nothing at all invented. She was carrying on a conversation with her godfather, that’s all. And he was most definitely present, in some indefinable but unmistakable way, a way that was absolutely real. Masha spoke to him now in French, now in Russian. When she noticed our presence, she greeted us with a smile — in English. We later learned from a family acquaintance that her mother had long before taught her to recite several prayers in German.
An exceptional child, yes. But Masha was exceptional because of the love and the tender compassion she received from her parents and others who cared for her — persons whose lives were profoundly touched and blessed by her presence, her faith, and her love.
Do we really want to live in a world devoid of persons like Masha, just because the sonogram exists and abortions are legal? I desperately hope we don’t. Yet the New Eugenics that has gripped this country is rapidly moving us toward a ‘final solution’ in which no genetic anomaly will be tolerated, no ‘defective’ child will be born or allowed to live.
How, then, should we welcome a disabled child? Just as we would want to be welcomed ourselves, as we would want our own healthy children to be welcomed. There where genetic or other deformations are so deleterious that the child is destined to a brief existence marked by acute pain, where death stares the child in the face day by day and moment by moment, there we can certainly opt for strictly palliative care. Medical heroics have no place, no justification, in such cases. Biological existence is not an end in itself, to be preserved at all cost, despite intractable and dehumanizing suffering that no pain management can adequately relieve. In such cases, charity demands that the medical team do all in their power to provide whatever comfort is possible and to prepare the child for a gentle and peaceful death.
Yet it is our responsibility, as members of the Body of Christ, to accompany the child and his parents along the difficult pathway that stretches out before them, and by our ceaseless prayer on their behalf, to surrender them into the open hands of the God of love and of life.
In conclusion, allow me to summarize a few of the points I have tried to elaborate here.
With regard to every newborn child, and disabled children in particular, we need to keep certain points in mind. First of all, every child born into the world is gifted by our Creator with absolute value and personal worth. Consequently, to recall the affirmation made by Olivier Clement, , every child without exception “is worthy of infinite compassion.” [For a brief and highly sensitive treatment of this theme, that reveals just such compassion, see Fr. John Chryssavgis, The Body of Christ. A place of welcome for people with disabilities (Minneapolis, MN: Light & Life Pub. Co.), 2002.]
From his conception until his death, the child is a person, a bearer of the divine image, whose primary vocation is to conform increasingly to the ‘likeness’ of God. This vocation consists in a long and difficult quest to acquire virtues, which are nothing other than divine ‘energies,’ such as justice, wisdom, beauty, compassion, and love. Human life is sacred from its origin because it is created in the imago Dei and called to assume the ascetic struggle that leads toward divine perfection. It is this exalted vocation that transforms every individual existence into personal life. This is ‘sacred’ life, since it originates from an act the of the Father’s creative love, and its ultimate end is to glorify and share eternally in the personal, communal Life of the Holy Trinity.
Second, we need to remember that every newborn infant is essentially a child of the Church. Each one is created and called to become an ‘ecclesial being,’ an integral member of the Body of Christ. Therefore, it is our responsibility as adult members of that Body, to assure that the children of our families and our parish communities are welcomed, nurtured, educated and loved with a love and faithfulness which reflect the unshakable faithfulness and crucified love which Christ offers to us.
Finally, with regard to disabled children, we need to remind ourselves constantly of one basic truth. The Innocent Victim par excellence is Jesus Christ Himself. It is He who has made Himself infinitely vulnerable, in order to accomplish the greatest gesture of love that we can imagine. As Suffering Servant, ‘He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not . But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53, 3,5).
It is precisely this image of the Suffering Servant, fulfilled in the person of Jesus, which affirms and confirms the infinite value of disabled children, and obliges us to welcome them with thankfulness and with love. The handicapped person is the very image of the suffering Son of God. In that person we have a continual confirmation of St Paul’s paradoxical observation: the power of God is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9).
The so-called ‘normal’ child born into this world can benefit from a broad spectrum of practically inexhaustible possibilities. This is not true of the handicapped newborn, who will suffer all his life the consequences of some severe malfunctioning of his body or mind. In order that his infirmity not reach to the depths of his soul, we need to assume the responsibility to welcome him with compassion, understanding, courage, and an abundance of affection. That is, to welcome him as Christ welcomes us, with our own spiritual defects, weaknesses and suffering.
Who, then, is this newborn child that comes into the world?
Whatever the state of his health, whatever his defects or disabilities, he is an icon of Christ and a gift from God, both for his family and for the Church. We, therefore, are invited to welcome him with open arms, to do for him what we are called always to do for one another: to offer him as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the God who is the Author of his life, just as He is of our own. ‘Thine own of thine own, we offer unto thee .’ We should make this liturgical, priestly gesture whenever a child is born. Receiving from God the unique and infinitely precious gift of this child, we offer him back to God by our prayer and our love.
At the same time, we assume fully and without hesitation the life of this infant, whatever his mental or physical condition. Both in the family and in the ecclesial community we welcome that child as the Magi and shepherds welcomed the child Jesus. And we commit ourselves to do all in our power, in order that this child, like Jesus Himself, might grow in wisdom and stature, and that the grace of God might repose upon him.
Fr. John Breck is professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris. With his wife, Lyn, he directs the St. Silouan Retreat near Charleston, South Carolina. His book, The Sacred Gift of Life, provided the theme of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship North American conference of 2002.