n June of 1949, my brother and I took part in the wedding of Tom Thumb and Jennie June.
It was a performance of a type that had been popular in schools since the “real’’ Tom Thumb — three-foot-eight entertainer Charles Stratton — married similarly diminutive Lavinia Warren in New York City in 1838.
At our school, 85 kids from the lower grades were recruited to portray the bridal party, guests, musicians, and minister in this pee-wee extravaganza.
I still have the program, and I recently realized something about it that had escaped my notice for more than 60 years — the order in which the guests were listed.
The names were not arranged by social rank, so to speak, nor were they presented alphabetically.
The first folks listed were the president of the Parent-Teacher Association and her spouse — an understandable choice since the PTA sponsored the “wedding.”
The next three names — listed before the principal, the Board of Education, the mayor, the police chief, and the fire chief, were the three school custodians and their wives.
That’s where my brother and I came in. He played custodian George Schmitt, and I played custodian Archibald Brown. For the record, Michael Kramer played custodian Charles Dunkerley.
When I noticed for the first time how these names had been presented, I momentarily thought that it was curious, but then I remembered how those men were regarded in that school and in our town.
Far from looking down on the nature of their work, the community considered it indispensable — the difference between keeping the school operating and locking its doors.
We kids heard those men referred to only as “Mr. Schmitt,’’ “Mr. Brown,’’ and “Mr. Dunkerley.
If it were possible for me to meet them today, I wouldn’t think of addressing them any other way.
Their place at the top of the guest list at Tom Thumb’s wedding resulted from a respectful attitude that Jesus urged everyone to adopt and one that he demonstrated in his own life.
There was a sign of this even at the birth of Jesus, when the first folks to visit him were shepherds, people of low rank, perhaps, when measured by education or wealth, but people whose work was to protect one of the most important commodities in that economy.
Jesus also provided an example by choosing among his closest companions fishermen — again, not people of high stature but people whose labor provided one of the staples of the Palestinian diet.
St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, too, that Jesus was critical of those who, because of their education and positions of authority, lorded it over other members of society.
And the Gospels tell us again and again how respectful Jesus was toward the people he met, whether they were known sinners such as Zacchaeus and the woman found in adultery, people with power and authority such as Jairus the synagogue official and the centurion whose servant was ill, or ordinary people whose origins were similar to his own.
This is a lesson that has been reinforced in recent months by Pope Francis, whose words and behavior challenge the rest of us to enter each human encounter with an attitude of mutual respect.
See Christ in the face of each person: It’s not just a religious ideal but a profound implication of the incarnation in which God dignified not just the pious and the proud but human nature itself.