As we near the end of May, we end a month of graduations and commencement ceremonies. A whole new generation of young adults has been sent into the world with degrees in hand. A venerable tradition for universities today is to invite an important or well-known speaker to impart a word of wisdom to the fledgling scholars about to turn the tassels of their caps. Sometimes students themselves deliver a speech. Themes vary, but most often such addresses include a focus on one’s career, on doing what one loves, and/or on persevering in a tough world. “Don’t let downers spoil your dreams! Be creative, have imagination, and be a trailblazer.” With an inspiring quote by Robert Frost or Walt Whitman, these addresses sketch a millennial version of the American dream. “Go, do it!”
Most addresses, I have been told, can be boiled down to a couple of principles: 1) Goal: go out and change the world. Dream big, be happy! 2) Means: follow your heart and do what you love.
Those who have just graduated—and, really, all of us—should take some time to read or hear proclaimed the Valediction (vale dicere, meaning “to say farewell”). For most of the month of May, we have heard it proclaimed at Mass during the Liturgy of the Word. I’m referring to Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John (chapters 14-17), which takes place at the Last Supper. Jesus has just instituted Holy Orders and the Eucharist. He is about to undergo his Passion and bring about the fulfillment of his earthly mission. It is at this moment that Wisdom Incarnate speaks at great length to his disciples and to his Father in heaven. He speaks also to us.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he begins (John 14:1). I have prepared a place for you in my Father’s house. This is the goal: heaven, sainthood, union with God. How, asks Thomas, will we know the way? “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6). This is the means. Know, love, and believe in the one whom the Father sent into the world. Keep his commandments (14:15). Receive the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth (14:16). Receive his peace—peace “not as the world gives,” but as Christ gives (14:27).
In the most important way, it is not we who change the world, but Christ. He has “conquered the world” (16:33) and has made “all things new” (Rev 21:5). He calls us to participate in his action through his mystical body, the Church. “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 14:5). In fact, with Christ’s help and with the Advocate he sends, we will do “greater” works than even Jesus himself has done (14:12). Christ, in this valediction, commands us: “love one another as I love you.” Love, he says, as I do in laying down my life for you (15:12).
He ends with his “high priestly prayer” (the longest prayer by Jesus recorded in the Bible), in which he asks the Father to glorify him and for the Father to be glorified. He prays for his disciples, “that they may be one” as Christ is one with the Father (17:11). He asks that they be consecrated in the truth (17:17). He says that they are sent into the world, as he was sent into the world by the Father. He prays that the Father’s love might be in them (17:26).
Take some time with these chapters of St. John. Christ speaks to us today in these words. Every Christian, in Confirmation, is commissioned to be a disciple of Christ—or, as has been traditionally said, a “soldier” of Christ. In a celebration unlike any commencement ceremony, we are sent strengthened by the Holy Spirit (CCC 1285). In this sending, we adhere to the wisdom of God and not mere worldly wisdom. Acting in accord with the former, we may not arrive at the American dream, but we will arrive at the place Jesus Christ prepares for us. There, our “joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
Image: Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, Last Supper.