We go through a the graduation season every year: Kindergarten, 8th Grace, High School, College and University. Commencements are always suspicious…I mean, auspicious occasions, where many come together to celebrate accomplishments and to embrace hope for the future. I’ve graduated five times, although I only walked in commencement three times, and I pretty sure I’m done with that.
Graduations are always a rite of passage. You are never the same: you go from being a student at one place to a completely different situation, whether it’s high school, college or what we call the Real World. It is the end of an era; you take on a new identity; you leave one world that you’ve inhabited for years to enter another one. It is a time of celebration for finishing one journey, and celebration for the promise of journeys that are yet to be taken. Graduations are always a rite of passage and many times a passage into the unknown. We usually know where our next destination is: when I graduated from high school I knew that I was going to college in Fayette, and almost all of my classmates knew either that they were going to college, to the military, or to the job market. My classmates at CTU, as least the seminarians, knew their first assignments as well as their ordination dates. College grads sometimes are a little more unsure where their next destination is, but they usually know where they’re going next.
Knowing your destination doesn’t mean you how you’re going to get there, so to speak. There are many things that can happen to you as leave graduation, and your destination may change. Every time I graduated every time I knew where I was moving to and when I was to be there, but I had no idea how the journey would go. I’ve heard it said that most people will make at least one major career change in the course of their lives: that’s been the course of my life. We never know quite what we’re getting into until after we’ve committed to it.
We celebrate the disciples going through their graduation today, of sorts. They have spent a little over three years with Jesus, sharing his travels through Galilee and just over the borders, witnesses to the miracles and the sermons and the encounters, companions on the journey to Jerusalem. They haven’t been perfect students: frequently in the Gospel stories about Jesus and the disciples, it’s painfully clear that they haven’t gotten the point of what’s going on. I’d hate to see their report cards. They were also absent from a very important part of the time, and they spent a fair amount of time in what can be called a graduate seminar, after the Resurrection.
Jesus gives them a short commencement speech that clears up their last questions: he has not to restore one nation, but to set their mission to the ends of the earth. He goes up to heaven, and they are standing there facing a future without their mentor. Just like a college graduate, they are on their own without a safety net. They have to stay together: literally for the next few days in Jerusalem, and figuratively over the next several years as they go to preach the Gospel in every corner of the known world, because they are to preach one gospel and not their own individual gospels. It’s almost a mystical connection they will have over the next few years, just as we sometimes keep mystical connections with our old friends even though our lives take different directions.
In many ways, it is a graduate course we are on as Church, even though at times it seems as though we’ve gone through a Kindergarten graduation and we’ve finding our way through the first grade. That’s been my experience sometimes, or at least it’s seemed like that. On days like this it is good to look heavenward at Jesus rising in glory. We need to do that, we need to remember the end of this story, because it helps the rest of the story that we’ve experienced together make sense. But we can’t get stuck looking up, as the angels are quick to remind the disciples. Our memory as Church of our Savior is something vitally important to keep us going, however, Christ’s mission is now our mission. As St. Ambrose said: “What was present in Jesus when he walked the earth is present today in the sacraments.” The Church itself is sacrament for the world; we are the new Body of Christ. The call to go forth, just like the call to new graduates to go forth, send us to places we expect and on journeys we don’t expect to go, and it goes back and forth from celebration to pain, mourning failure and celebrating successes. Every day we celebrate our graduation, our new relationship with Christ and our new relationship with the world.
A big difference is we’re called to go together. Jesus sends us forth together to show Him to the world.