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. At this point they make a change: they go from being disciples, or followers, to apostles, or witnesses. Or rather, they gain a new identity without losing the old one, being both disciples and apostles. They also knew their final destination: heaven, and with that knowledge, they were free to go anyplace without fear of being lost.
There was a popular song a few years ago, “I’ve got friends in low places…,” but more often we need a friend in a high place. Jesus is most certain our friend and there’s no place higher than where He is. Part of the mystery of our faith is that Jesus promised his disciples he would be with them always: He is certainly with us always. Understanding how that can be is best summed up by a portion of a famous poem by St. Patrick, called the Lorica, or St. Patrick’s Breastplate:
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop [deck],
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Christ goes up to heaven and sends us out to be His witnesses, and He is with us always, just as He went with his Apostles as they went forth.