Resurrection and Graduation: And a Word about the Good Shepherd
Blessings and best wishes to all rising (and risen) graduates from middle school, high school and college. It’s that time of year again, and the Fourth Sunday of Easter. And we celebrate resurrections in more ways than one. Also, I would like to invoke blessings on all students who are not graduating soon but are wrapping up this school year and moving on to another. I pray that, wherever life’s adventure takes you, your favorite saints and angels will be your guides. Pray with them and to them, often. They’ll show you the Way.
Today, we heard from St. John in The Book of Revelation, “I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.” Clearly, this had nothing to do with social media. Yet, St. John saw this happy vision in unhappy circumstances. He was exiled on Patmos, a small Greek isle in the Aegean Sea off the west coast of (what is now) Turkey. He was exiled because things weren’t going well for him or the Church. But in the thick of trial, God revealed to him a New World beyond time, beyond “here and now.” He saw light from heaven and received cryptic messages about the spiritual battles underlying history. St. John later wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). That sounds a bit like a commencement speech. St. John knew that the outcomes of human promises are doubtful; and he knew that the outcomes of God’s promises are not revealed, except in the most obscure yet reassuring terms. All promises involve unknown factors. Ultimately, no one is certain about any promise. “What we shall be has not yet been revealed.” The only thing about the future of which we’re certain is an imprecise fact: All will be well. The past is certain. The present is certain. The future is entirely unknown. Except for one thing: a beauteous City awaits those who live and die in friendship with Jesus and the saints. Faith, hope and love. These are the only grounds we have to know the future.
Nonetheless, the uncertainty of everyone’s future and the certainty of God’s grace are not the usual topics of commencement speeches. Giving such a talk would (ironically) make one thing about the future certain: you won’t be invited back. That would be almost as bad as Bilbo Baggins’ speech at his birthday party: “I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve” (The Fellowship of the Ring). Unlike commencement speeches, God’s Word says nothing about bright futures, great accomplishments or changing the world. How often we’ve heard apocalyptic pap in graduation talks: “You all are the ones who will change the world!” “You’re the future!” “The world is your oyster.” Meanwhile, everyone’s waiting to down the champagne, if it’s not already being passed around beneath the graduation gowns. There will be only one apocalypse: The Second Coming of Christ.
St. John writes about supernatural destiny. Few colleges – even Catholic ones – prepare students to reflect on and discuss this life-defining issue. College students often say their education is unsatisfying. They learn techniques, ideas and ideological agendas. But nothing about life’s meaning. Destiny is a rare topic nowadays because it engages divine revelation and theology (which are not the same thing) in ways that impact how we approach life and think about other subjects: history, ethics, literature, the arts and even science. How much disciplined thought is put into this question? “What’s a good life?”
A lifetime comes and goes
And as my friend the rose said only yesterday
“This morning I was born
And baptized in the dawn
I flowered in the dew
And life was fresh and new
The sun shone through the cold
And through the day I grew
By night-time I was old”
(The Rose, Françoise Hardy)
Baptism – destiny – is not an ideology. It’s an experience rooted in an encounter with the divine. Something beyond history broke into history and became part of history. Plato called this kind “event” an experience in the metaxy (the in-between) – a happening that entails a felt tension in-between transcendence and immanence, eternity and time, immortality and mortality. It’s a divine encounter that creates a Presence within. It’s the content of faith. It creates a tension between the demands of ordinary life and transcendent destiny. It implants divine movements within a person – that are sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, and mostly undetectable – that we call grace. St. John talks about a personal transformation that evolves, by grace, to a purified maturity and then to holiness. Holiness is consummated at a definitive, immortalizing moment: death. For those who die in grace, new life bursts into splendid glory and beauty, like an immortal rose, at the Last Judgment. The Last Judgment is the ultimate Baptism of the cosmos, of history and of “all.” It’s a new Dawn, a new First Day, a new Light shining from the womb of Eternity. Easter is its prophecy. “Behold I make all things new” (John 21:5)! And then, your real self is fully revealed, from the hand of God. “I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, which no one knows except him who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).
Baptism planted a destiny in us. We’ll become what we don’t know yet, to be revealed on a “white stone” with a “new name.” For now, true identity is hidden within the tangles of an old self. We detect the old self in temptations, troubles, doubts and weaknesses. But trials purify. When John saw a “multitude” wearing “white robes,” an “elder” explained, “These are the ones who have survived the great trial; they’ve washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Destiny is accomplished in the fires of tribulation.
Time is “sub specie aeternitatis” – “under the aspect (or species) of eternity” – said Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher. You – body and soul – are the “place” where time and eternity meet. That’s a uniquely human privilege. Like the Virgin Mary, your “yes” to God makes you a connection – an umbilical cord – between time and eternity. Baptism made you a privileged dwelling place of God, in the tensions of time. The journey of life is the passing from time to eternity. It’s a gradual graduation, until it’s abruptly consummated at death and finally at the Second Coming. It’s a graduation from time to eternity, from guilt to innocence, from adulthood to childhood, from trial to joy, from anxiety to peace, from toil to freedom. Happy Graduation!
And now a word from our sponsor
A Word on the Good Shepherd
by Saint Gregory the Great
I am the good shepherd. I know my own – by which I mean, I love them – and my own know me. In plain words: those who love me are willing to follow me, for anyone who does not love the truth has not yet come to know it.
My dear brethren, you have heard the test we pastors have to undergo. Turn now to consider how these words of our Lord imply a test for yourselves also. Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action. John the evangelist is my authority for this statement. He tells us that anyone who claims to know God without keeping his commandments is a liar.
Consequently, the Lord immediately adds: As the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep. Clearly he means that laying down his life for his sheep gives evidence of his knowledge of the Father and the Father’s knowledge of him. In other words, by the love with which he dies for his sheep he shows how greatly he loves his Father.
Again he says: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them; they follow me, and I give them eternal life. Shortly before this he had declared: If anyone enters the sheepfold through me he shall be saved; he shall go freely in and out and shall find good pasture. He will enter into a life of faith; from faith he will go out to vision, from belief to contemplation, and will graze in the good pastures of everlasting life. So our Lord’s sheep will finally reach their grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity. These pastures are the spiritual joys of heaven. There the elect look upon the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for ever more.
Beloved brothers, let us set out for these pastures where we shall keep joyful festival with so many of our fellow citizens. May the thought of their happiness urge us on! Let us stir up our hearts, rekindle our faith, and long eagerly for what heaven has in store for us. To love thus is to be already on our way. No matter what obstacles we encounter, we must not allow them to turn us aside from the joy of that heavenly feast. Anyone who is determined to reach his destination is not deterred by the roughness of the road that leads to it. Nor must we allow the charm of success to seduce us, or we shall be like a foolish traveler who is so distracted by the pleasant meadows through which he is passing that he forgets where he is going.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor