2012 Commencement Mass Homily
University of Notre Dame
May 20, 2012
Gospel: Mark 16:15-20
Jesus said to his disciples: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.
On this graduation weekend, we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension. It’s a wonderful feast day, a joyous feast day. But in the initial reading, the story of Jesus ascending into heaven strikes an uncertain note with the disciples. They just spent 40 days with the risen Lord while he instructed them and encouraged them. Jesus’ momentous resurrection gave them hope that great events were imminent. “Lord,” they ask him, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” No doubt they had hoped he would. They envisioned for themselves privileged places in that kingdom. They had hopes for some very promising job prospects, something with which our graduates can sympathize.
But now this one in whom they had placed their hopes, and in whom they had such great expectations, drifted up into the sky. And as if to make things worse, as they looked up two men appeared to them and said, “This Jesus has been taken up from you into heaven and will return the same way as you have seen him going.” They must have wondered, “When? For what?” and most importantly, “What are we going to do in the meantime?” Jesus, they probably remembered then, had already answered that question for them when he told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” They were, in the meantime, by their words and actions, to testify to Christ. And, he had told them, they will find within themselves the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. The disciples had a duty to carry on the work of Christ and to find the power of God to do that.
In one sense, the feast of the Ascension can be called the “Feast Day of Just Us.” Jesus has gone. We must do what we can to carry on the work. But it’s also the feast day of finding the power of the Spirit in our hearts to continue that work. What an appropriate day to send forth our graduates. Your task will be to witness with your words and actions to the love of God and to find in yourself the strength from the power of the Holy Spirit for whatever you will need.
There’s also another reason why today’s feast is so appropriate. It is, in a way, a feast of up- ended expectations. You know, in the previous two months the disciples had been on a bit of a roller coaster ride of expectations, disappointments, and new expectations. They came to Jerusalem and Jesus entered the city, the city of David, the city of kings. The people welcomed him with applause; they spread palm branches on the road as he rode in. “Hosanna in the highest!” They must have thought, “This is our time, we’ve made it; here will be the time of our exultation.” But then on Holy Thursday he tells them he will suffer and die; a bit of a turn in their expectations. And then on Good Friday, he does; he suffers, he’s beaten, he’s crowned with a crown of thorns, and is crucified and put in a tomb. Their hope is dead. Their expectations have been dashed. But then, on Easter Sunday, the tomb is empty and the risen Lord appears to them. New hope, glorious hope, hope they didn’t even dare to hope for. And they spend time with him. But now he leaves them. Now he ascends and here they are, looking at the sky and wondering: what is next?
Now what does this feast day have to do with you graduates? First of all, you and your parents have expectations, as you should. And we pray that those expectations, those high hopes will be realized. But often we find in life that they have to be adjusted. And it’s important to hold our expectations a little loosely, to recognize sometimes they’re upended, sometimes there’s disappointment, sometimes there’s hardship, but often they give way to a new and more genuine hope. The thing about expectations – good or bad – is that they often revolve around ourselves, our own comfort, our own glorification, and sometimes it’s a good thing that those are upended so we can have a better hope, a more generous hope, a better expectation about our lives. So it’s important to have expectations but also to be open for the ways God directs us to something different, something higher, something better.
And I think the second lesson is that, regardless of whether your expectations and hopes are realized or not, to look in your hearts for the strength of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who resides there will give you the courage to go on, the inspiration to live your life to testify to the Lord, to testify to God and his love. During uncertain times, remember those disciples looking up into the sky. Jesus is ascended and they’re wondering what is next. The one in whom they placed their hopes, the one who was the focus of their expectations has just left. It really is just them. Because then God directs them to look in their hearts, to look for the strength of the Holy Spirit, to go on, to find their calling to do what’s next.
So as you go forth from this place, some of you uncertain about the next step, always be open to find the inspiration of the Spirit in your hearts to find your calling, to find the strength to take the next step, to find inspiration, to find wisdom for what’s next. Graduates, all of us here and all your parents wish we could guarantee a life free from hardships and challenges or difficulties, but we can’t. There are often up-ended expectations in our lives, disappointments and adjustments in our course, but that’s part of life. But we believe, and we celebrate in this feast day at this Mass, that you have knowledge and the faith to overcome adversity or suffering. For it’s often in our disappointments that we lose false hopes and find true and lasting hopes. And it’s often in life’s twists and turns that we’re most conscious of the Holy Spirit, residing unnoticed in our hearts, who leads us on, who shows us our calling, who gives us the strength to live and the courage to love. Graduates, that is our hope and prayer for you as you go forth from Notre Dame. God bless you all.
Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
President, University of Notre Dame