I like to tell stories about people with Down syndrome, in part because my son Christopher was born with Down syndrome. Down syndrome people sometimes have a way of seeing the world differently than those of us so called normal people. And so it is sometimes helpful for us to approach life and scripture through their eyes. It is an education.
There’s an old story about a Sunday School class that was learning about the Resurrection. Among the children in the class was David, a boy of about seven who had Down syndrome. The teacher had gathered a number to Legg containers, the egg shaped plastic containers that held the uncomfortable, and I’m told, nylon stretch leggings that women used to slip onto their bodies into in order to be more beautiful.
The teacher asked the class, now children take this container and gather some sign of the Resurrection of New Life. The children went outside for it was a nice day in April and it wasn’t in unpredictable Vermont. The children all returned and revealed their various discoveries and treasures of the signs of new life. One little girl scored a butterfly which she let out and it flew up and into the room and out a window, another a crocus, another a bud from an apple tree, and another a tuft of new spring grass.
When it came for David for him to open his Legg container, it was empty. “Oh David some of the children said, didn’t you see something that was the sign of new life?” The other children chimed in. David confused at their response, said, “ but, but the tomb was empty.”
As it happens with some children with Down syndrome, they are also born with a heart defect. David had such a heart and within a few months of the class, he died. At the church David’s coffin lay in state and each of the children came to his funeral and each carefully and reverently set their Legg containers, beautifully decorated, on David’s coffin. All of them were empty.
As with Mary of Magdala, she came that first Easter and the tomb was empty. The only ones to have seen the resurrection were the angels. When Peter and John came they looked. Saw the empty tomb, turned around and left. Mary stayed and begged the gardener “tell me where you have taken him so I can finish dressing and anointing his body for burial.” It was then she heard her name, it was called in a voice that was familiar to her, and she saw Jesus. And that has been the way the faithful have experienced the presence of Jesus since that time. A voice, or a presence, or in what the Celts call the thin places that lightly separate us from the holy, Christ comes.
The tomb was empty, but Jesus keeps on showing up.
One Easter, before the opening hymn, I conspired to send three of the children to noisily open the front doors and to run down the aisle, joyfully calling, “Alleluia, Alleluia, He is risen.” It was then that the long procession began. The Crucifer was one of our long tall teenagers followed by the torch bearers, and the choir singing, “Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia.
After the choir came the banner bearers. There ended up being two of them. They each had Down syndrome. Our regular crucifer at the eight o’clock service was Ed Hammond, he was nearing sixty and was showing the signs of the onset of Alzheimer’s, but he could still carry things and light the candles on the altar and receive the offering. He looked for ward to serve at the main service on Easter. Unexpectedly, David Wiggin showed up. David had Down syndrome and was now living in a group home in nearby Bridgeport. When he was a child David senior, his father, kept his son at home on Sundays.
One day the priest said to David, “Why don’t you bring him to church?” He sensed that the welcome was genuine and he began to bring David, Junior with him. David had been trained as an acolyte and Served on the altar for many years. The banner that was to be carried that Sunday was one that David and his wife May gave to the church only a few years before. It was big and blue and gold with a Golden Rooster that was the symbol of the Church because it had a six foot golden rooster on the top of the steeple that gave the direction of the wind to sailors passing out the river into Long Island Sound.
It was only a few weeks before that I held David senior’s hand as life slipped away from him after he had a cerebral hemorrhage. The Jewish doctor and I each with one of his hands removed the life support and each of us tenderly watched the monitor as his heart beat slowed and finally stopped. His wife Mae was only twenty feet away in the emergency room of the hospital. It was a holy moment.
So when David the son, showed up with an Aide, unexpected, I pressed David into service. We dressed him in an alb and sent him to carry the banner. We now processed down the aisle. The banner preceded the Gospel Book and the deacon, the Lay Eucharistic Ministers, and the two clergy.
But there was a problem, David couldn’t see in front of him, the banner was too big and he held it too low. So Ed Hammond guided him slowly and haltingly forward. The Crucifer and the choir were up ahead of us. The rest of us followed the two men with Down syndrome up the aisle, singing Jesus Christ has Risen, and slowly carefully led by the gentle and the innocent and vulnerable a learning disabled, the rest of us made it up the aisle into the sanctuary.
And during that slow time in the aisle waiting and wondering if the two would make it with the huge banner, there was a supreme moment of Joy. I thought we could go home now, Christ is here and now leading us in all our imperfections and resplendent beauty up and up to the holy, slowly halting step after halting step, we climb the stairs to enter into the presence of the living Christ who keeps on showing up in the most unlikely places and the most unlikely times.
So keep your eyes, ears, and hearts and minds open this day, this very moment, for Christ to come; slowly guiding you up and up with steps, to bring you into the heart of His great and generous heart of love.
On the way out we made our way with clergy and others as we followed the banner bearers and danced to “Oh Happy Day” slowly clapping and taking our time.
So remember to keep an ear peeled for the gardener.