Column by Jonathan Nagy
In 2003, Mitch Albom wrote the inspiring novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which followed the life and death of a man named Eddie, a mechanic at an amusement park who died in an accident at work. The story followed him to heaven, where he encountered five people who had an impact on him during life. The encounters were meant to demonstrate to Eddie that his life had meaning and answered this question of what purpose God had for him.
A popular class assignment and dinner conversation follows roughly the same premise, one that I have my history classes at Bishop Carroll complete. The idea is to name five historical people that my students would like to meet and describe the conversations, as well as explain why they would like to meet them. Some of the usual suspects are Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Saint Francis. Some students mention other people from history and a few talk about meeting with deceased relatives and ancestors. Their reasons are always fascinating about what they would discuss with these individuals and why they would like to meet them, whether or not these individuals had a direct impact on their lives.
We like to fantasize about interactions we dream of having, and the people that we would possibly want to meet. Odds are, we will never have most of these encounters, and we will not be able to meet with our relatives until we are united with them in heaven, just like Eddie. However, we will still have many interactions.
Statistically, every American will speak with over 80,000 people in their lifetime! Even though that number is large, it is still only .001% of the world’s population. It is difficult to fathom meeting that many individuals, many of which we may never know or remember their names. Now, after 19 years in education, it is becoming more difficult for me to remember names of students who sat in my classes, especially the earliest students, as they have grown and changed. We speak with people in stores, at church, during sporting events, and more. Individuals of every race, color, creed, and belief come across our paths, some we agree with, others we do not. Some people are only in our lives for a fleeting moment, while others are here for longer and serve a deeper purpose.
My first question to address here is, “In all of the encounters you have ever had, have you seen the face of Jesus?”
I have. In every person that I have ever met! And so have you!
Every human being has value. Individuals like to focus on the differences that exist among people, and that focus can turn into sinful behavior from minor gossip to despicable hatred. We criticize and nitpick each other’s looks, beliefs, and actions. We put down others because we disagree with them and totally write them off. We let our anger get the best of us, saying unkind things about people and sometimes committing unspeakable crimes and offenses against them. Humans judge other humans poorly for no other reason than viewing others through the lenses we choose to have in our mind’s eye.
My second question is, “Would you have treated that person any differently if you knew they were Jesus Christ?”
I have been incredibly blessed in my life to have met wonderful people. Aside from my family, whom I love, my lifepath has allowed me to make connections with people that exhibit every positive quality that we look for in others. In spending the majority of my life and time in two Catholic places, Bishop Carroll Catholic High School and the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel, I truly believe that these connections, relationships, and friendships are rooted in Jesus Christ. Being a part of these institutions has exposed me to inspiring people, life-long friendships, and role models. I see the face of Jesus Christ in every thriving and every struggling student. I see the face of Jesus Christ in everyone who comes into the Basilica for prayer and Mass. No one comes into the church as perfect individuals, but rather as flawed creations of God seeking His guidance, love, and mercy. I see the face of Jesus Christ in those who uplift each other in these places, and the incidences of this are innumerable.
No one can be Jesus Christ, but we can all exhibit qualities that He possesses. In doing so, we are becoming like Christ. Saint Paul wrote in First Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Coming from Paul, who started out as a persecutor of Christians, that is a monumental thing to say! He proves that the stray sheep can be brought back into the fold and become examples to others.
My third question to ponder is, “If we can see the face of Jesus in Paul, who admitted himself that he was an extremely flawed man, why do we struggle so much with seeing the face of Jesus in other people?”
Back in the 1990s, WWJD (What would Jesus do) became a mainstream popular catch phrase. It was meant to give people pause to their actions and think if it would be something that the Lord would condone. Catchphrase creation is not something I excel at, but I would like to update that phrase to be WITWJ (What If They Were Jesus?) Would we have the same reaction to others, say the same things, treat them the same way, if they actually were Jesus Christ? Well, in a way, they are!
A beautiful popular hymn is “O God You Search Me” by Bernadette Farrell. The final verse reads, “For you created me and shaped me. Gave me life within my mother’s womb. For the wonder of who I am, I praise you. Safe in your hands, all creation is made new.” Those words touch my heart every time I hear them. God created each of us in His image for a very specific purpose. This song is often used with the Pro-Life movement, as an emphasis on the potential that a yet-to-be-born child will have on earth. The face of Jesus Christ is even seen on a child that has yet to be born. If someone who was considering an abortion believed they were carrying Jesus Christ, would they still go through with it? Again, in a way, they are carrying Jesus Christ, as we are all created in His image.. Every life is precious, and made for a purpose!
The fourth and final question I would like to propose is, “Can others see the face of Jesus Christ in us?”
Do our words, thoughts, and actions reflect that of a person of faith? Do we work to do our best for each other? Are we people that act knowing that one day, we will be meeting with God for judgement?
In a recent discussion with a colleague, I stated that I believe there are two requirements for others: Do what you have been tasked with doing, either by God or through your work, and be a kind person. In almost every one of these articles that I write, I stress how important it is to be kind. Sometimes I feel like I am preaching to the choir, because the audience I write for are God-loving people. I know that I need to do more to show that kindness to others, and I pray that more people work harder to do the same. Everyday mundane tasks like grocery shopping can be stressful and agitating, but being nice to the other shoppers and especially the workers goes a long way. If there is an issue with a product, it is often not the customer service worker’s fault as they are just doing their jobs. Anytime I have to call a hotline for computer issues, insurance issues, etc., I try to be as nice as I can to the person on the other line. They are doing their job trying to help and rectify situations, and showing them a little kindness speaks volumes, especially considering how many angry phone calls they may receive in a day. Being patient with a server in a busy, understaffed restaurant exhibits Christ-like qualities. Businesses are struggling right now finding staffing, and those who are working need to be commended. Servers work incredibly hard and often have several tables to manage. Instead of complaining that the drinks came slowly, tell them how much you appreciate what they are doing. These are all small things that exhibit a great deal of kindness and allow others to see the face of Jesus Christ in us.
Jesus left us many blueprints for how to be like Him and follow His ways. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy, along with the Beatitudes and of course the Golden Rule, teach us how to care for each other. We may not think others remember the little things that we do for them, but they definitely do. Think of all of the good things that others have done for you, including random acts of kindness, and what they have meant to you. Every act is an example of good Christian behavior.
Recognize the face of Jesus Christ in others and allow them to see His face in you. Once one truly believes that He is present in every human, then respect, honor, compassion, kindness, and understanding is a gift given freely. By doing this, eventually the goal would be to recognize the worth and value of others, without having to rationalize them as Jesus Christ, for as He said in Matthew 25:40, after explaining the corporal works of mercy, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it for Me.”
There are definitely challenges in life, but a life rooted in Jesus Christ has only one final result, which is eternal life in Heaven. If we are fortunate enough to reach Heaven, we will not only meet five important individuals from our lives, but all will be revealed to us by the Father, and we will be given the gift of knowing what our lives were all about. As Mitch Albom wrote in The Five People You Will Meet In Heaven, “This is the greatest gift God can give you: to understand what happened in your life. To have it explained. It is the peace you have been searching for.” See the face of Jesus, and be the face of Jesus!
Jonathan Nagy, M.Ed., is the Dean of Students and Social Studies teacher at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg. He is also the Music Director at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel in Loretto.