Father Mullen, Mr. Glandorf, Mr. Sheehan, Mr. Marshall, acolytes, choir, esteemed guests, friends, family, congregation, and especially the class of post-resurrection disciples, welcome to the 2012 Ascension Day Exercises. It is such a joy to be here with you, such a privilege to have been asked to offer a few words of wisdom and counsel and congratulations as these eleven fresh-faced apostles and their companions graduate and begin to make their own way in the world. What a day this is! A day to look back over the past three years, to remember and celebrate the long, hard journey that has brought you to this place. And it is a day to look forward to the future, to gaze into the coming days with hope and courage, knowing that you have been prepared well for the challenges that lie ahead and that the friends you have made here, in this city of Jerusalem, will continue to shape your life powerfully for years to come. Indeed, what a day this is! It is the first day of the rest of your life. Today is truly your commencement.
It is always a challenge to know what to say on such an auspicious occasion, or even to whom I should say it. Should I speak to just the graduating class, reminding them of how far they’ve come? Should I tease them a little about how hard it was for them to learn their parables, or about that dark and stormy night on the Sea of Galilee when they nearly capsized their boat in panic? Should I recall the time they were all fighting over who was Jesus’ favorite until he put a child in their midst and invited them to be child-like but not child-ish?* Should I speak with gravity of the events of the past few days, remind them of how all of their Holy Week frailty was redeemed by Easter morning? Or should I just try to offer them words of wisdom, nuggets of truth that they can carry around in their pockets? Should I remind them to listen to their hearts, to go out into the world and make a difference, to live each day to the fullest, to love their neighbors as themselves, to follow their Passion?
Or should I speak to the whole crowd? Should I remind all of you who are sitting here of the important part you’ve played in the lives of these disciples? Should I thank you, encourage the graduating class to stand and applaud you, you with your open hearts and doors, with your wounds that needed healing, your sins that needed forgiving, your food that needed blessing and breaking? Or should I speak to a crowd that isn’t even here – should I rail against Roman tyranny or lambast the Pharisees because of their hard hearts that not even the Son of God could melt? Should I be political? Entertaining? Inspiring? Philosophical? Or should I just make sure that my speech is short, so that you all can get along to your graduation parties and brunches and family gatherings in the temple?
My job, of course, is not made any easier by the fact that Jesus has already said so much. In his remarks earlier, he has already offered an entire survey course on the history of the people of God. He has reviewed all of that which was said about him in the Law of Moses and in the prophets, even in the psalms. He has opened the minds of these faithful disciples to understand what was written in the scriptures, reminding them that he was always meant to be crucified, killed, and raised on the third day, that he was always meant to proclaim forgiveness to all people, that this shul in Jerusalem was always meant to be just the beginning. And he has charged the graduates with their future work and ministry, assuring them that after this day – and after a few weeks set aside for worship and blessing and celebration – they will be clothed with power from on high, sent out from this city to the ends of the earth as workers and witnesses. Jesus has already said so much. In this final speech of his earthly life, he has, in a way, already covered it all – looking back and looking forward, offering Wisdom and counsel and a sending forth. What more is there really to say?
Well, not much, except that I believe it falls to me to point out that while these may seem like your typical commencement exercises, they most certainly are not. At a normal graduation, after the speeches and the diplomas and throwing your mantles in the air, everyone goes their separate ways. The graduates go out into the world on their own, to live their life and make their mark; the teachers climb back up into their towers of learning, decreasing, as it were, to let their former students increase, hoping that what they’ve said and taught will endure in their absence; and the friends and family simply go back to living their regular, ordinary lives. And what is so different about this commencement?, you may ask. Isn’t that what’s happening here? The disciples are being sent forth into the world to live independent lives that are full of grace, Jesus is ascending on high, going away, drawing back to let the disciples go out and bear fruit on their own, and you and I are just watching. There is something happily predictable about this pattern, something organic and familiar – the little chicks leave the nest, the students become the teachers, “the seasons go round and round and the painted ponies go up and down.”**
But the circle game is not what is going on here today. Yes, the disciples are being sent out into the world with a new sense of authority, mission, and purpose, but they are never – never – left on their own. Yes, Jesus is ascending into heaven, but he does this not to leave the disciples alone, but because it is only by ascending that he is able to be as close as he needs to be, to draw near as he wants to be. It is only by climbing into the very heights of heaven that he is able to fill all things, to see as far as the furthest corners of Jerusalem, to Corinth and Antioch and Rome, to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south, across the mountains, over the seas, over the years, to this little church in this little town with all of our worship and celebration and blessing and joy and sorrow and healing and pain. Jesus ascends, not to help us learn to fend for ourselves, but because it is only by ascending that he can be as present to is all as he needs to be.
And yes, you are here to witness these exercises, but you are not here just to watch, and you are not expected to simply go back to living your regular, ordinary lives. You are charged, too, you are sent, too. Because in the course of this ceremony, you have been grafted into the body of this graduating class. In this liturgy, you, too, have heard Jesus the teacher reminding you of all of the lessons he taught the disciples here on earth. In this commencement exercise, you, too, have been invited to look back over your life to remember the times that Christ has taught you, to remember the mistakes you’ve made, the forgiveness you’ve received, the infinite tiny graces that have been showered upon you like confetti. And you, too, have been encouraged to look forward; you’ve been offered nuggets of truth, words of Wisdom and vision, and presented with the gift of an eternal hope to which Christ has called you. In this commencement exercise, which we sometimes call the Mass, you have been shed your role as supportive bystander and put on the robes of a graduate, who is charged and called and sent. You have been changed here, transformed by the powerful presence of the resurrected and ascended Christ, who fills all things and fulfills all things, whose presence will never withdraw, never pull away, never leave you alone with just the lessons he taught. He has ascended to fill all things, even you, and you are hereby sent out in his powerful company. You are not here just to watch. You are now an apostle. You are a graduate. This is your commencement. And so I say to you, Congratulations.
*These phrases taken from a recent talk given by Bill Gordh.
**Joni Mitchell, “The Circle Game.”
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
17 May 2012, The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia