Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Special Child - A Candlemas Reflection

I've ummm'd and ahhh'd a bit about posting this - it's the text of a sermon I preached for Candlemas this year. But a few people have asked to read it, so I thought I'd go ahead and make it available, especially given the upcoming General Synod debate on 'Valuing People with Down's Syndrome' on Saturday 10th February.
In case you wondered, the Bible readings for the day were Malachi 3.1-5, Hebrews 2.14-18 & Luke 2.22-40.


A young couple enter the temple with a six week old baby. They’re just one family among many, doing their religious duty according to the Law of Moses, apparently no different to any others there - though less well off than some as they bring a pair of birds in place of a lamb and a pigeon. But they know they are different – that their child is different. Since before he was born they have been told he is ‘special,’ that people may not accept him because he’s been made differently - and yet He will lead those who come to know him to a greater understanding, a deeper relationship, with the very God the crowds have come to the temple to connect with.

But since he was conceived, there has been at least half an eye on his death. His mother’s partner would have been within his rights to have her stoned to death while he was still growing in her womb. Even having survived past birth, there would be threats to his life in childhood, causing his family to flee the country & become refugees, strangers in a strange land, alienated from family and friends and their usual support networks.

As he grew there would be rejection, attempted beatings and even attempted murder due to the way he challenged people’s perceptions of what it is to be ‘normal.’ And eventually there would be pain, torture, humiliation and death placed upon a young man whose main message was one of love. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

It’s been a challenging week for me as I’ve considered our readings for the feast of the Presentation, Candlemas as it’s known, as the realisation of some of the emotion, stress and pressure that Mary & Joseph must have felt has mingled with my own experience of Fatherhood and the fragility of life.

By nature it is a bittersweet festival anyway, looking back to the joy and hope of the coming of the Messiah we recently enjoyed at Christmas, but also looking forward to an onrushing period of Lent, culminating in the pain of Good Friday. For us this is understood, and bearable, as we know the rest of the story. But imagine hearing the words of the Nunc Dimmitis, the song of Simeon, as Mary or Joseph. 
This random old man spots them through the crowds, is moved by the Holy Spirit to go across to them, to take the child in his arms and suddenly some of the most wonderful words in the New Testament pour out of him – words which on one hand celebrate the dawning of the light of God’s salvation, yet on the other warn Mary of the pain that she must expect and of the division that her Son will provoke among God’s people.

And this has, I don’t know, rattled me a bit this week. You see, next Saturday General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England where our representatives set church law and shape the identity of the C of E, will be given the chance to debate a motion entitled Valuing People with Down’s Syndrome. This is mainly as a response to the roll out of a simple blood test for Down’s Syndrome that the National Screening committee approved almost 2 years ago.  

Now, you may have seen this test, called NIPT, reported at the time as a huge breakthrough, wonderful news for all. The headlines most of the press went with were hugely positive – after all, it should reduce the need for invasive testing procedures, which trigger around 350 cases of miscarriage every year. So this is good news, that will bring comfort and clarity to many at a difficult time in their lives.

But aside from the muddied waters surrounding some of the claims put out to the press by the companies who stand to profit from the test, such as downplaying the information that up to 50% of positive results in younger women will actually be false positives, the conflict for me comes because the sad fact is that most women, when their baby tests positive for Down’s, will choose to have an abortion.

Currently around 90 per cent of pregnancies that involve the condition end in a termination, with the steady rise blamed on increased access to blood tests via private clinics. In Denmark, the head of a midwife association proclaimed: "When you can discover almost all the foetuses with Down Syndrome, then we are approaching a situation in which almost all of them will be aborted."

And even more sadly, there is a part of me that can understand this.

Because my youngest daughter has Down’s Syndrome - Trisomy 21 in medical speak due to the presence of 3 copies of the 21st chromosome. And from the moment medical staff suspected she had Down’s she went from a ‘pregnancy’ to a ‘risk’, and the expectation, the path they encouraged, was that of ending her life before birth.

We were told how hard it would be, how much she - and we - would suffer, and were met with surprise and disbelief when we maintained our decision to continue with the pregnancy.

With Down’s one of the ‘serious disabilities’ where late term abortion is still permitted, meaning any time before birth – with two cases being highlighted of women being offered terminations at 37 weeks – the questions, the reminder we could always try again for a "normal" one, the knowing looks and the occasional distain continued throughout the pregnancy.

But just for a moment imagine if all of our potential problems, foibles and personality traits – both real and suspected - had been laid bare in front of our parents before our birth.

That instead of ‘congratulations’ they were given a heap of statistics on what might go wrong with you as you grew.

And imagine if all Mary had heard was the negatives Jesus life would bring – you’re too young to have a baby, you’re not married, the child will be different, divisive, be accused of mental illness and demon possession, will break your heart more than once - and will die a criminals’ death for stirring up trouble against those in authority.

I think this highlights the problem we face whenever we de-personalise anybody. It becomes so much easier to treat people as things when their existence is merely grouped into a short phrase or category, when they go from being individuals with hopes and dreams, created in the image of God and with the same blood of life flowing through them, to simply a “Down’s sufferer” or a “bunch of migrants” – something worth pondering so close to the end of Holocaust Memorial week, especially as thousands of disabled patients were killed by the Nazis in gas chambers disguised as shower rooms in the first experiments to test that equipment while children under 3 identified with disabilities were sent for euthanasia disguised as additional care.

But each person on this planet is much more than a stereotype or a statistic. Each and every person is valued by God for who they are created to be.

And the words that pour forth from Simeon, this amazing piece of scriptural poetry that is still used to bring comfort & blessing by the Church in funeral services and every night in a service of prayer and reflection called Compline, points us to a world-altering truth. It reminds us of a recurrent theme of the Old Testament, one possibly little noticed by most people of the time, gently resonating almost like an echo through time and space - God’s purpose of blessing extends beyond Israel, to include all people, who will be blessed through God’s blessing of Abraham.

It is at this moment we discover the universal scope of God’s church – good news for us in here, as without the amazing outpouring of God’s grace we would still be outsiders, destined to remain estranged from our Father – grouped together as merely “a bunch of Gentiles.” And also good news for those we might describe as ‘out there,’ who we have a responsibility to pray for, to show God’s light and love to, and to help find their way back home to their Lord and redeemer, whatever group society deems they should fit into.

It strikes me the beauty of God is in his eye for detail. No sparrow falls, not one hair of our head is lost, without God noticing. Whatever stage of life or health we are in, whatever gender, nationality, skin colour or chromosomes we were born with, God still cares about each one of us, about the situations we face, and wants us to talk to Him about them, bring them before Him in prayer, and trust in the blood of his Son Jesus, poured out at Calvary for our Salvation, and the Holy Spirit given freely to live within us to help us remain in a right relationship with him.

St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Those who want to paint us as deluded, as out of touch, for believing in the risen Christ, for seeking to do unto others as we would have done to us and loving our neighbours as ourselves, miss the point.

We are not ashamed of the Gospel as we know it to be the only thing that holds up as true in a world that is seemingly designed to keep us in our place, that wants us to seek the material over the spiritual and live in fear of those around us, in fear of the unknown. We can hold fast to the Gospel because we know that Christ has experienced all this world could throw at Him and still reigns triumphant. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Phoebe’s arrival in our lives has brought challenges, pain and heartache greater than I had ever thought possible. But then so did the arrival of our other three children – such is the paradoxical nature of true love.
Since before she was born we have been told she is a ‘risk,’ – that people will not accept her because she has been made differently.

Yet so far she has blessed many who have come to know her, including me, with a greater understanding, a deeper relationship, with the very God the crowds in the temple all those centuries ago came to connect with.

This is not because she has Down’s Syndrome, or even despite her having Down’s Syndrome – it is because she is who she was created to be by He who “formed her inward parts; who knit her together in her mother’s womb.”
The grace of God poured out upon us through Jesus life, death and resurrection is ours because he loves us, loves you, indiscriminately and desires the best for each one of us, His children.

He sees past the smoke and mirrors of who society claims we are, even who we sometimes pretend to be, and instead sees us as he created us to be, and longs for us to allow him to work in our lives, refine us like the precious gold we are, and present us as a gift to the world, a beacon that points the way to Him.

By not just talking about, but by living out the Gospel we can experience Christ in our lives as fully as Simeon did in the temple, and proclaim his as confidently as Anna did to all whom we meet. And however difficult and painful it can be to accept the Christ into our lives, whatever the ‘risks’ we’re told well have to face as disciples of the risen Lord, we find that, just as we did with Phoebe, the blessings far outweigh the costs. Because a love so pure, so powerful, so life changing, is worth more than anything.



  1. We are all different leaves of the same tree. God Bless.

  2. Such beautiful words. Thank you for sharing your personal story. God bless you and your precious family.

  3. One of the best sermons I've heard, Paul. Thank you.

  4. Thank-you! So well-rounded!I'm glad you shared it! Encouraging and motivating to look at people differently always..Yes not as a thing..or commodity sometimes!