A Living Icon of Faith

Each year on Holy Friday, a woman with Down's syndrome lived the tragic mystery of the Passion as most of us never can

Marie ("Masha" to those close to her) had all the symptoms and characteristics of what we used to call mongolism. She was in her mid-30s when I got to know her, which was more than three decades ago. She died a few years back, well into her 60s, far beyond the age when most Down's people have succumbed to a variety of congenital defects. Throughout her long life, she remained a child, with a child's innocence, mischievousness, irascibility and stubbornness. A true child.

People stared at her on the street, mildly repulsed by her squat figure, slanting eyes, and wide forehead, as though trisomy 21 were somehow self-willed, a bad or at least unfortunate choice she had made for herself while still in the womb. Her mother laughed and played, taught and prayed, with this only child, to the point where Masha could say her prayers and converse fluently in her native Russian and in the French. Masha also learned to pray in German. And when my wife and I visited her family, she greeted us in English, with a big, satisfied grin. Extraordinary for a Down's syndrome person. But Masha herself was extraordinary, simply because she was deeply loved and blessed with exceptional care and understanding.

I first caught sight of Masha in the Russian Orthodox church of St. Sergius, located in Paris' 19th arrondissement, then a poor working quarter of the city. The old wooden church, purchased by emigres from the days of the October Revolution, was adorned from floor to ceiling with magnificent sacred images depicting the whole of salvation history. It was Holy Friday, and people milled around before the afternoon Vespers service, lighting candles, venerating icons, and whispering quietly to one another. The sense of anticipation was palpable.

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A few minutes later, the service ushered us into the awesome mystery of the crucified God. Ancient Slavonic hymns resonated throughout the church with power and poignant beauty. Finally, the central Royal Doors of the iconostasis opened. The priest and several laymen, with the intensity of the moment etched on their faces, came forward carrying the "epitaphion," or large image of the crucified Lord, wrapped in the shroud of a dead man. Their solemn procession brought them to the center of the church, where, before a large wooden cross, they laid the image on a low table, placed a Bible and a cross upon it, and heaped it high with flowers. All the while, the choir repeatedly sang the traditional and magnificent hymn known as "The Noble Joseph," commemorating the actions by which this converted Pharisee took Jesus' body down from the cross, anointed it with precious oils, wrapped it in fine linen, and laid it in a tomb.

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