Last May I led a parish pilgrimage to Italy and we made sure we visited Manopello to venerate the mysterious image of the face of Christ.

In the museum they had a display showing icons and paintings from various times and places representing the face of Christ.

All were beautiful and holy, but the display reminded me of all the different “Jesus Christs” that are out there. 

Down through history it has been noted that people, churches and national groups tend to make Jesus into their own image. Like a chameleon, Jesus seems to change according to his environment.

With all the different versions of Jesus, how do we know we are encountering Christ and not just our own idea of who Jesus is?

There are dozens of religious experiences out there to be enjoyed. It’s a buyer’s market, and in this age of commercialism the hucksters of religion are pretty good at slapping together a neat religious experience. 

In the Protestant megachurches you can get a whiz-bang combination of light rock music, hologram sermons from the mega preacher, a touch of self-help philosophy, donuts, coffee, cool child care, and a dash of feel good inspiration.

The old-time Protestant religion gives you solid Bible preaching with a splash of guilt to make you feel bad/good. They usually do a nice line in imprecations against the ungodly and worldly folk and that will make you feel warm all over and ‘close to Jesus’. Often they throw in some apocalyptic, ‘end times’ conspiracy theory stuff that builds up the esprit de corps through a bit of excitement and fear.

Meanwhile, the mainline Protestant denominations offer peace and justice for all. All are welcome there and it makes you feel good that all ethnic minorities, homosexuals and feminists can all come together under a rainbow banner to embrace one another and build a brave new world together. With this they offer some righteous indignation against all the oppressors, the rich and the ‘self-righteous wicked bigoted conservatives white male patriarchal oppressors.’

And those are just the Protestants!  With different ecclesial movements, religious orders, devotions and forms of activism, there are also numerous different Catholic versions of Jesus.

In addition to all the above you can throw in the charismatics with their “baptism in the Holy Spirit”, the Evangelical experience of “getting saved” and religious experiences linked with meditation and contemplative prayer. 

In pointing this out I am not being cynical. I actually think the religious marketplace is healthy. The only question I want to ask is, “How do I know I’m getting the real thing?”

C.S. Lewis once commented about a form of religious experience that it might make him feel good, but then he could get much the same feeling from having had a rather good dinner.

There are plenty of religious experiences to be had, but the Catholic Church says these subjective experiences are rooted in five objective ways we can know that we have encountered Christ. These five ways are not only taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but in the Gospel itself.

The first way is through the community of believers. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them.” Good. So I experience Christ therefore within and through the Church. It is in my fellow believers and in our worship together that Christ is known. My own personal subjective experience must be validated by the corporate reality of Christ in the Church.

The second way is through the Eucharistic species. The bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. “This is my body” he taught. It’s pretty simple. We know Christ through communion and through Eucharistic adoration. In that action we move out of ourselves and into communion with the objective reality of Christ in the Eucharist — made present in and through his Body the Church.

The third way is joined with the first two. We know Christ in the person of the priest. He said to his apostles, “Those who hear you hear me, and those who hear me hear the one who sent me.” and “As the Father has sent me I am sending you.” By direct commission Christ not only sends the apostles, but is present in and through them through the miracle of ordination and apostolic succession. “What!” I hear you gasp “I am to see Christ in old Father Layabout who has a drink problem?” That’s right. “I am to see Christ in Father Volcanic who blows his top at every little problem?” Uh-huh. It’s a mystery, but there it is. Most of all, of course, we see Christ when that frail and human priest is celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and doing what only a priest can do.

The fourth way is through the sacred Scriptures. “The Word was made flesh.” We therefore come to know Christ through the study of Scripture and the hearing of the word of God. Here is another “mystery of Godliness” that God speaks to me through meditating on his Word.

The final way is in the face of the poor. Do you want to experience the mystery of an encounter with Christ? Do you want to know that it really is Jesus? Then see his face in the face of the poor. Don’t just write a check to your favorite charity. Get out and meet them and you will meet Christ. He said that too didn’t he? “Inasmuch as you did this for the least of my brethren you did it for me.”

These are the five faces of Christ. You might as well forget about the rest of that piffle. The best all that other stuff can do is lead you to the five faces of Christ. The worst it can do is distract you away from the five faces of Christ because you will have mistaken a poor counterfeit for the real thing.