Where Special Needs and Easter Meet

Some of my earliest memories are anchored in the sensations that accompanied our family's Easter observances. Scratchy petticoats under new spring dresses. Bonnet straps tied too tight under the chin. The tickling ruffles of white anklets and toes crammed into shiny new Mary Janes. The smell of ammonia rising from Dad's urinal zipped into the black leather bag tucked under the pew. Dad, not sitting beside his family, but behind us in his wheelchair.

I would steal looks at Dad during the sermons. More than 50 years later, I can close my eyes and see his expression as he listened to the pastor. That memory brings me to tears–and yes, I am crying while writing these words–because his expression is not joyful or hopeful. It is resigned. It is sad. Even sorrowful.

After the service, his expression always changed. Eyes twinkling, Dad would position his wheelchair in the middle of things. He greeted every person who passed by, shaking hands, sharing stories, wishing them a happy Easter, refusing to leave until the crowd dispersed, and Mom was fretting about the ham burning in the oven. Dad's good mood lasted through Easter dinner with our relatives, the egg hunt with our cousins, and the card games that followed. But after the company left and Mom shooed us to bed, the sadness and resignation settled around my father once again.

When I was a little older, we attended Maundy Thursday services, and I sat up straight when the pastor read from Isaiah 53.

...he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.

Those words could have been written about my father. The cruel progress of multiple sclerosis had robbed him of his ability to function and had altered his once handsome looks. I had walked beside Dad's wheelchair and watched people cross the street to avoid him. Strangers came to our house and told Dad his sickness was a punishment from God.

I stole a look at Dad and had to look away from my father who was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Until that moment, my childhood perception of Christ tilted toward the divine side of his being. Jesus had a human body, but he was also God. So he was powerful. He was strong. He was in control. He performed miracles. He was wise. He was everything I was not.

But Isaiah's description emphasized the human side of Jesus. This Jesus was ordinary. He was weak. He was not in control. He was limited by his humanity. He was resigned. He was like my dad who sat beside me on the couch and called me Jo-Jo. He was like my father who, though he couldn't do as much as before he was sick, did everything he could to keep me safe and to show his love.

Every year as Christians prepare to celebrate the divinity of Christ revealed through his resurrection, I think of how my father and how his illness revealed Christ's humanity poured out on my behalf.

Jesus, in his divinity and power, is all that we are not. But Jesus, in his humanity and goodness, shows us all that we can be when he becomes our Savior.

For those of us who live with disability and sickness, this intersection of love made strong through weakness is where special needs and Easter meet. This is where we bow to worship and proclaim the hope of Easter that resounds for eternity.

Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed!