Standing up for God's little ones, no matter the cost

"The Adoration of the Christ Child," circa 1515, by a follower of the school of Jan Joest, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting is believed to be the earliest depiction of a person with Down syndrome in modern art. (Wikimedia Commons)

Around 1515, a Dutch artist painted an “Adoration of the Christ Child” now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Angels kneel around the crib, alongside Mary and Joseph; shepherds peer in from the back; and the countenances and clothes of those closest the Child shine with a brilliant white light. Perhaps most striking are two faces, one an angel’s and one a shepherd’s: these figures exhibit the visual characteristics of Down syndrome. It is the earliest known depiction of Down syndrome in art.

March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day, a day of awareness celebrated by the United Nations since 2012. World Down Syndrome Day takes place on the 21st day of the third month in recognition of the unique chromosomal difference of persons with Down syndrome: a third copy of the 21st chromosome. This genetic difference was the discovery of Jérôme Lejeune, founder of modern genetics, father of five, and lifelong champion of his patients and their families, especially his many patients with Down syndrome, whom he cherished as “my little ones.” Pope Francis declared Lejeune a Venerable in 2021.

A week before his marriage, Lejeune wrote his wife-to-be asking whether she would join his life’s work of studying Down syndrome. He said in essence: if you agree to a difficult but fair life, where we will earn little and have to make many sacrifices, I am sure we will be able to help these patients by finding the cause and the cure.

He and his family did indeed make many sacrifices. After a brilliant early career, studded with discoveries and awards, Lejeune imperiled his prestige by choosing to stand with the unborn and speak out against France’s liberalization of abortion laws. Maligned in the press, deprived of his funding and research team, Lejeune lost most of his invitations in the U.S. and was twice passed over for the Nobel Prize. His children bicycled to school past the graffitied slogan, “Kill Lejeune.”

Lejeune continued his work undeterred, little with “his little ones.” He counseled frantic parents who had just received a Down syndrome diagnosis for their unborn child: Your child is made in God’s image, called to beatitude, endowed with unique gifts of affection. Many parents testified to their wonder at the welcome and the gaze of love Lejeune bestowed upon their child with Down syndrome. His look changed the way they looked at their child.

We are approaching Holy Week, when we will accompany our God-made-man along a path of scorn, misunderstanding, rejection, and physical disfigurement. As Christians, we above all should be able to see the glory of God hidden in the faces of our neighbors. We are called, with them, to the same beatitude — gazing with them, like the angels and shepherds of a centuries-old Dutch painting, on the radiance of a God who became little for us.

Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.


AOD-IAM: July Article Bottom