This weekend I am flying to Atlanta, Georgia, to participate in the commencement ceremony that marks my graduation from a doctoral program. Next weekend I am driving to Iowa to attend a graduation party for my cousin, who will be finishing high school in a few weeks. It is that time of year—black gowns, mortar board hats, tassels, “Pomp and Circumstance,” speeches, parties.
To be honest, I have never been the biggest fan of graduations. It all seems like a lot of hassle. If you are a graduate, you have to dress up, find a way to secure a ridiculous looking hat to your head, wait around for the ceremony to begin, and then listen as the name of every single one of your classmates is called. If you are attending a graduation, you also have to dress up and then fight with other people for the few good seats that will actually allow you to see the action, all so you can catch a fleeting glimpse of the one person you care about walk across a stage.
On top of being a hassle, graduations can also be anticlimactic. I have participated in three graduations to date, and at the end of each one, I felt let down. Never during the ceremony did I have a swell of emotion or a sense of accomplishment. I knew the event was supposed to mark a significant accomplishment in my life, but really, my main emotion was boredom, not pride.
So why am I going to my graduation in Atlanta this weekend? Why I am driving to Iowa for my cousin’s graduation party if I am such a graduation downer? Actually, the reason I am going has to do with two experiences I have had with church.
The first experience was Confirmation. Along with everyone else in my grade school class, I received the Sacrament of Confirmation in the eighth grade. I hated the experience. Confirmation classes were boring, focusing on right and wrong answers to factual questions rather than deeper questions about who we are, why we are here, and what we are supposed to do as Christians. While all the other girls in my class got to wear the cute floral dresses that were in style at the time, my mother bought me a pleated black skirt and a red, black, and white plaid blazer with shoulder pads to wear for the big occasion. I was mortified. As if that was not bad enough, when I went to receive the sacrament, nothing happened. I expected to feel something different after the bishop laid hands on me, but I still felt like the same old Claire. “What a stupid sacrament,” was my thought at the time.
But then the next year, at a time when I really needed God, I felt God’s presence with me in a way that I never had before. And that continues to happen. When I really need God, I can sense God’s Spirit with me. And I would like to think that I have been there for God, too. While others in my confirmation class have left the church, I still attend mass (and do things like write for this blog). So while the actual night of the Sacrament of Confirmation may have been a bit of a bust, in retrospect, it was an important night. I went forth from that sacrament ready to receive the Spirit’s presence with me in new ways and I found myself living more fully as a disciple of Christ.
My second experience came in high school, when I was struggling with whether to continue going to church or not. I really did not feel like I got much out of being at church and preferred to pray on my own at home or to spend time with God outdoors. But then I heard a homily in which the priest suggested that going to church is not really about us or for us, but is rather about and for God and the community. In other words, I shouldn’t go to church because I wanted to get something out of it. I should go to church because I have something to give—praise and thanksgiving to God, prayers and care for others. So I kept going to church and changed my focus to being part of a community gathered to give thanks and praise for all God has done.
So despite my negative attitude toward graduation, I know that graduations are important. They are important not so much for the actual ceremony itself but for what the ceremony signifies. Graduations mark the ending of one stage of life and the beginning of another. While we may not feel it during the graduation ceremony, graduation signifies that we have grown and are new people heading out into the world to do new things. Importantly, graduations bring together the community—not unlike the way sacraments in the church bring together the community—to witness this important life transition. Teachers, friends, family, and other members of the academic community gather in order to celebrate who we have been and to look forward to who will be. Graduations are not only about us; they are about giving thanks for what has been, praying for what will be in the future, and being together as a community.
Perhaps most importantly, graduations encourage us to think about who we will be in the world as we go forth. How will we put what we have learned into practice for the good of the world? How can we support others as they work to do the same? Really, it is not unlike the focus of each Sunday Eucharist. We gather as a community to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, but then at the end of mass, the priest says, “Let us go forth to love and to serve the Lord and each other.” We come together in Eucharist not only for the sake of that hour spent together as a church community but in order to be sent into the world, changed by our taking the body and blood of Christ into our body.
Of course, graduation is not sacramental in the way the Eucharist is. However, it is a time we come together for the sake of publicly witnessing what has been accomplished, only to be sent forth to live what we have learned. What matters most is what we do next.
As you approach the end of the school year or perhaps a graduation of your own, take a moment to reflect on where you have been and where you are going. What have you learned this year? How have you changed as a person? How will you live what you have learned in the world for the good of all God’s people?