Recently, the parents of one of my fourth graders welcomed the arrival of their fifth child, who has Down Syndrome. I had the privilege of attending the private Mass of his baptism. At the moment of his baptism, he stirred — almost like John the Baptist in his mother’s womb — and I was moved to tears at the thought of God’s breathing His very own life into this baby at this moment.
I was moved, too, by the realization that much of the innocence that God so gratuitously gave him at that moment would remain with him throughout his life. As my student and I shared with his classmates about the baptism, I explained to them simply that because he has something called Down Syndrome, “It will be harder for him to sin than it is for you and me.” There was a great eruption of “holy jealousy” from my students!
I think there is a longing deep in the human heart to be free from sin. Of course, concupiscence — our inclination to sin — can be very strong in us, and we often easily fall into trying to fill our desires with lesser goods. But deep down, no matter how much we try to deceive ourselves into believing otherwise, we knew that we are not free. We are bound and imprisoned and enslaved by our sinful habits. We often feel stuck in our sins or addictions and feel unable to find a way out. Indeed, left alone to our own devices, there is no way out for us. We are simply incapable of saving ourselves from our own sins. And it is only once we admit this truth to ourselves that we can recognize our need for a Savior.
The name "Jesus" means "God saves." In fact, in order to save us, God did not simply send a messenger; rather, He Himself came as our Savior. He Himself is our healer and our path to freedom. He alone has power over our sins.
The One who has this power to conquer our sins and restore us to true freedom came as a tiny baby, unnoticed not only by the world but even by those who had longed and looked for His coming for centuries. It was only those who were poor in spirit and knew their own need for God — Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, Simeon, Anna — who recognized Him when He first came. We, too, must acknowledge our need for Him, our need for a Savior if we are to recognize His presence and action in our lives. Otherwise, we shall miss the peace and freedom that He alone can give us.
My students saw it desirable that being able to avoid sin would be easier for them. And yet that is exactly what a life of virtue does: the more I have virtue, the freer I am, and the easier it is for me to choose the good because I am less bound by the ways of sin. For example, if I truly have the virtue of temperance, it will be easy for me to refrain from eating another helping of food when I am already full. But if I do not have temperance, often my taste buds will dictate my decisions instead of my use of reason.
Jesus came to set us free from these bonds. He gives us this gift of freedom as gratuitously as He gave purity and innocence to my student’s brother. He offers us a share in His own life. This is true freedom!
Sr. Mary Martha Becnel is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.