Gina Christian

I once attended a crowded Mass at a cathedral where pew seats were in short supply. I bypassed a few available folding chairs, thinking they might be uncomfortable, and decided to stand with a group of worshipers near a side entrance. The spot was just the right distance from both altar and exit, and I settled in with a missalette and focused on the liturgy.

About halfway through the Gloria, I noticed a movement to my left. As the choir’s voices swelled, five policemen deftly swept past me and marched to the side door — dragging with them a young man dressed like Jesus, who had apparently tried to approach the main altar and disrupt the Mass.

A second later, I found myself following the unexpected procession down the church’s exterior steps to the patch of grass where they’d laid the handcuffed youth.

Cautiously, I approached the closest officer and asked if I could speak to the young man; the officer shrugged, and for me that was permission enough. 

I bent down and said, “Michael.”

I’d recognized him as a youth who sometimes visited my parish’s adoration chapel, which is where I’d seen him only a few days earlier, dressed in a Halloween-costume biblical robe, a wooden staff in his hand.

At the time, he’d asked if I would pray for him.

“I have some stuff I’m dealing with,” he admitted, brushing back a lock of his dark blond hair. 

And for the next half hour, he confided how he had wrestled with mental health issues, with addiction, with the loss of relationships. Yet even amid the wreckage that his life had become, he said, the person of Jesus had always beckoned him, drawing him to AA meetings and renewing the faith of his childhood.

“I was raised Catholic,” he said proudly. “I went to Catholic school.”

He quoted Scripture fluently and fervently; he spoke of the need to forgive our enemies, and to treat one another with mercy. I listened, praying in silence for the wisdom and compassion that particular moment required.

As he continued talking, I could only marvel at how closely the young man resembled popular depictions of Jesus. The long curls and beard; the large, expressive eyes; the earnest demeanor — all swirled into a nagging possibility at that late hour in the chapel:

“Lord, is it really You?”

Surely Christ wouldn’t appear as someone claiming to have struggled with addiction or poor mental health, I thought. And he wouldn’t admit to having broken friendships, or a need for prayer. Nor would he wear such a cheap tunic, or be so eccentric.

Or would he?

As I tried to speak a few words of calm and comfort to a handcuffed Michael at the cathedral, I began to think that he actually reflected Jesus more accurately than even he himself realized. 

The prophet Isaiah speaks of a Christ who “was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain” (Is 53:3), one “from whom you turn your face,” one who was held “in no esteem” (Is 53:3).

Indeed, says the prophet, “he had no majestic bearing to catch our eye, no beauty to draw us to him” (Is 53:2).

How easily we find ourselves singing that “we are the body of Christ,” and how often we fail to treat everyone else as if we believed those words. We’re quick to dismiss our own flaws, and relentless in holding others accountable for theirs.

In his confusion and distress, Michael was an unlikely messenger for the divine call to see and honor the image of God in every human being, even and especially the most broken. The would-be Jesus’ handcuffed wrists remind us of the far more binding shackles that restrain our hearts from loving one another as Christ loves us.

Several minutes after being escorted from the cathedral, Michael was released, charged only with a minor public disturbance.

May God be as merciful with us if we dare to approach his altar dressed in our own imitations of his garb, rather than the radical love with which he longs to clothe all of his children.

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Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com and host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.