For many folks, in and out of school, these days constitute a season of celebration. Colleges and universities, high schools and grade schools, even preschool programs all formalize their students’ transition with some sort of pomp and circumstance.
Most graduation ceremonies include a guest speaker invited to share some wit and wisdom in giving advice to those advancing to the next stage of their lives. Usually, the speeches are forgotten by the time the parties commence.
But not for the class of 2019 at Morehouse College. Their speaker, billionaire technology investor Robert F. Smith, departed from his prepared remarks to announce that his family would make a financial grant to pay off all the student loans of his new classmates.
Estimated afterward to be a gift worth $40 million, Smith’s philanthropic promise drew a variety of reactions: stunned amazement from most (especially parents), shock and awe from some (like the administrators on stage), and whoops of joy from all the graduates. “Priceless” indeed!
Then came the challenge, made to alumni old and new. Smith exhorted them to pay it forward, so that others might benefit from the opportunity for a new life now generously afforded to them.
Unlike most graduation speeches, that one will certainly be remembered by the Morehouse College class of 2019, who can now embark on their careers debt-free.
We, too, hear a beneficent speech at this time of year. Though less tangible, the gift and challenge that Jesus offers in this season between Ascension and Pentecost is even more life-changing.
For 40 days, we have celebrated the power of God to overcome death in the Resurrection of Jesus. With his Ascension to the Father’s right hand, we celebrate the promise of Jesus to lift up humanity to eternal heights. And in his promise that the Holy Spirit would come at Pentecost, we celebrate the never-ending presence of God in our world and in our lives.
These gifts are announced to, and conferred upon, all believers at baptism. They continue to be shared through the grace of the sacraments we celebrate in the church. Considering the divine beneficence, one might wonder why our reactions don’t resemble, match, or exceed those at the Morehouse commencement ceremony.
Are we amazed at the stunning course of events in salvation history, which we recall each year in this liturgical season?
Are we in awe at the generosity of God’s loving kindness toward us, evident in the merciful grace always available to us despite our many sins?
Are we actually filled with the joy of our faith, which we, too, can pay forward through the happiness of our demeanor, the kindness of our words, and the generosity of our deeds?
The graduation speech by Mr. Smith, his gift to the graduates, and his challenge to his fellow alumni, all made real the sense of community at Morehouse College. The community of the church calls us, even more so, to be “members one of another” (Eph 4:25), as Pope Francis reminds us in this year’s message for World Communications Day.
Forty million-dollar donations may not be in the offing, though they would certainly be helpful! But each of us, clergy and lay faithful alike, have at our disposal a communications tool that costs nothing to use – the smile in our hearts and on our faces that tells the world of our joy at having been redeemed by God.
Each week at Mass, we profess faith in the Father who created us, in the Son whose Death and Resurrection and Ascension saves us, and in the Holy Spirit who comes upon us at Pentecost and remains present with us in and through the church.
For Christians, even more than college students, the Good News announced and affirmed in these events ought to evoke comparable reactions of wonder, awe and joy. When we speak and hear these words with real faith, then our hope comes alive. When we realize the gift we have been given by God, then we will be inspired to take up the challenge of discipleship.
Responding to this gift and this challenge, with vibrant faith and engaging hope, we also have an opportunity to lead new lives. For what we celebrate in this sacred season is not a graduation, but our salvation.
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