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We at the Center for Family Care coined our ministry for people with disabilities and their caregivers, “Fully Human.” This title is an intentional connecting point to the Orthodox Christian dogma that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully God - one person with two unconfused natures. That’s the simplified doctrinal message, but oh the depths to which Christ’s Personhood can be searched! 

The other purpose for choosing “Fully Human” was to emphasize a shared, human experience, whether or not people have disabilities. The unfortunate reality is: though we profess belief in perfect dogmas, we often fail to employ them in practice. Widely held understandings of personhood fall short or skew the Prototype offered to us in Jesus Christ. 

It is difficult to see through murky, cultural distortions when defining what makes a person fully- alive, purposeful, worthy, or important. Cultural “norms” marginalize large groups of people, including those who do not meet accepted physical, mental, or cognitive standards of what is considered “normal.” To put it bluntly, people with disabilities are often seen as less than alive, less than purposeful, less than worthy, less than important - less than human.

The true and perfect standard for humanity is Jesus Christ. He fulfills complete communion with God, lost by Adam in the fall. When we consider Christ as the standard, the question then becomes: how can we discern which attributes of Christ’s personhood are divine and which are human? Such an exercise requires great care and prayerful searching. The gospel narratives provide a good starting point, as they relate to us clear teachings of Christ regarding His human and divine attributes. Depending on the circumstance, Jesus refers to Himself as “The Son of God,” shedding light on that which is divine; and, alternatively as “The Son of Man,” revealing what is specifically human. 

For purposes of this reflection, I will focus on two of the many gospel references where Christ refers to Himself as “The Son of Man.” Furthermore, I will connect them to how I see these human attributes embodied in my son who has physical and cognitive disabilities.

Number 1: The Son of Man Is Vulnerable

“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” ~ Matthew 8:20

In the context of a conversation with a young man who asks to follow Jesus as His disciple, Jesus responds with the words quoted above. Jesus seems to be telling this person something like, “Be aware, following Me will not give you the security of a home or a comfortable place to sleep.” If we distill His message further, I wonder if the Lord is suggesting something more profound: “Following Me will reveal to you that human beings are vulnerable (including Me, in my assumed human nature) and have no permanent physical security in this world.”

People with disabilities are no strangers to physical vulnerability and discomfort. My son, for one example, has sensory issues that greatly disturb his bodily peace, persistently interrupt his sleep, and cause sensations of normal body functions to be exacerbated, painful, or scary. His proprioceptive sensations (the way he feels his body to be in space) are awry, and so he doesn’t feel gravitational pull normally - he does not feel physically grounded. Visually, he does not differentiate changes in depth such as steps or curbs. He sees a line on the ground and cautiously treads beyond it with the uncertainty of whether he must step up or down. If physical insecurity is a prerequisite to being human, my son understands well this human vulnerability.

Number 2: The Son of Man is Misunderstood

“Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” ~Matthew 16:13

Jesus presents the above question to His closest 12 disciples, away from the crowds. They respond, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” To which He follows with another, more critical question: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:14,15)

When my son was a newborn, many parents of children with Downs Syndrome came to visit us and shared personal experiences about their children who, like my son, also have an extra chromosome. Many gave us books that encouraged them on their family journeys. Though I was comforted by the stories and candid revelations of personal fears and triumphs, some of the shared sentiments became a stumbling block for me.  I began to wait for a highly social, fun-loving, compassionate extrovert to blossom forth as my son matured. This is one of the dangers with stereotyping and overemphasizing one set of expectations. 

In one book I read about a mother who saw her son as a prophet sent from God to teach her, her husband, and their family  the great lesson of loving one’s neighbor – no matter what. Time after time, “Adam” demonstrated a sensitive, perceptive, non-judgmental spirit. He was also immensely grateful for the “littlest things” in life, and his love for people was a freely offered, unconditional gift. 

Like Jesus, each of us is a prophet unto each other –a prophet with a small “p,” of course. For a time, I failed to see my son’s prophetic role in my life because I had preconceived notions of how he would reveal truth to me, based on other people’s stories. It has taken some deep soul searching and much time for me to see how Michael fulfills a prophetic mission. He exposes much darkness in my heart, as well as sources of light I wasn’t aware existed before he was born. No one else in my life has challenged my ideas of what it means to be a real human being more than he. No one has helped me to see as clearly, the false idol of perfectionism for the damaging belief that it is. 

My child who is created in the image of God - just as every person is - is more like The Son of Man, than I can ever hope to be. He doesn’t have to try to show me truths. He is nonverbal, and so he never uses words, yet his life speaks. Michael just is. And, such authenticity allows a person to be more fully human: to experience life and react to it sincerely; to embrace one’s role in this world whether consciously or not; to not imitate patterns of behavior merely as a coping mechanism, or for acceptance, or to acquire admiration from others. Michael does not calculate or premeditate. In him there is no guile.

The people who witnessed Jesus when He walked this earth had expectations of what the Christ would do and say in order to set His people free, influenced by centuries of shared stories and others’ revelations. Preconceived notions interfered with the ability of many to recognize Him for Who He really was, especially when things got tough. The “Christ crucified {was} a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor 1:23). 

The same holds true today, for us. 

Dear reader, “Who do you say the Son of Man is?”  Your honest answer to that question can be found away from the crowds, deep in your truest heart. It can be more fully answered by sincere answers to these related questions: Do you believe Jesus Christ shared the fullness of human vulnerability in His flesh, aside from sin? Do you believe He is the “least of His brethren?” (Matt 25:40) Do you believe all human beings, even those with disabilities, are valuable members of church communities? To the extent that you do, you will see each son or daughter of man – with or without physiological challenges  - as fully human. To the extent that you do not, a change of perspective is possible, for the Son of God is in the business of restoring sight.

Presvytera Melanie DiStefano is the Resource Coordinator for the GOA Center for Family Care.