For the audio recording of this homily, click the green arrow below.
This is graduation season, and you see a lot in the news about commencement speeches. Last week, I spent some time watching videos of some of the speeches online.
There were the usual famous names – mostly TV personalities who make a living by speaking: people like Oprah Winfrey, Brian Williams, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric. Virtually every one of them said some variation of the same thing. Dream. Be tenacious. Don’t settle. Follow your bliss. Make the world better.
In other words: a lot were just awful.
Is it any wonder that most of us don’t remember the addresses from our own graduations?
But then I discovered one speech that was memorable. It was delivered by someone who is not a household name, but should be.
His name is Eric Greitens. He spoke at Tufts University two Sundays ago. As the citation described him when he received his honorary degree: “Eric Greitens has hewed to a life of leadership with a moral compass. Passion, intelligence and valor have been the hallmarks of that journey.” Eric Greitens was a Navy SEAL who was deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. When he left the service, he donated his combat pay to found a group called “The Mission Continues,” a nonprofit that works with wounded and disabled veterans to help them build new lives here at home.
In his talk, Eric Greitens spoke about his military deployments, about being sent to places scarred by genocide or starvation or almost unbearable human suffering. But from that, he came to discover one common thread. Whether in Rwanda or Cambodia or Iraq, he said, the ones who fared best were often the parents and grandparents with small kids. As he put it: “They knew they had to wake up every single day to be strong for someone else.” Those who knew they had a purpose larger than themselves, those who knew that others were counting on them, they are the ones who grew to be stronger.
That is powerful stuff for a commencement speech. But when you think about it, that is also part of what has drawn us here this morning: the faith in something greater, the belief in something mightier, the sense of being a part of a cause whose ultimate goal, of course, is the salvation of souls.
And it occurs to me: if you want to hear the ultimate commencement speech…well, you already have.
It is in this Sunday’s gospel.
In popular terms, what we heard today is called “The Great Commission.” It is the parting message of Jesus to his apostles, and it concludes the gospel according to St. Matthew. But it is, in a real sense, the most important commencement speech ever given – commencing, or beginning, the most important undertaking in history: the spreading of the gospel.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus told his followers, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
There are two things that strike me about this: first “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Teaching the world, in other words, to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless. Teaching those “disciples of all nations” to “love one another as I have loved you.”
But then there is the first half of that great commission: baptizing in the name of the Trinity. On this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, those words stand as a powerful reminder not only of the vital work that we have to do, but of the unique way our faith brands us – claims us – for God.
We are not baptized just for the Father, or just for the Son, or just for the Holy Spirit. We are claimed by baptism in the name of all three persons – the Father who created us, the Son who redeemed us, and the Spirit who sanctifies us and gives grace and inspiration to our lives. We are Catholic Christians because of this three-fold baptism – a mystery that defies our human comprehension, but one that informs everything we are, everything we do.
We have been branded in the name of the Trinity, and we acclaim the Father, Son and Spirit again and again. Every time we make the sign of the cross, we relive our baptism and mark ourselves on behalf of the one God in three persons. We do it at the start of many prayers – and at the start of the greatest prayer, the Mass.
That sign of the cross at baptism was the beginning of our lives as Christians – the commencement, if you will – and everything we are and all that we do flows from that.
From that, we are given the great gift of being Christians. We are given the grace that enlivens our hearts with love; we are given the courage that enables us to stand strong for what we believe; we are given assurance and abiding faith in the mercy of God.
And there is this: we have help. Christ’s concluding statement in the gospel – “I am with you always” – echoes what the angels proclaimed at the time of his birth. Remember? “He will be called Emmanuel. God is with us.”
Jesus told his followers: “I will not leave you orphans.” And he hasn’t.
When Eric Greitens was preparing his commencement speech, he said, he drew inspiration from a series of books he loved as a child, called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” His favorite was titled “Journey Under the Sea” and began, “This is your most challenging and dangerous mission. Fear and excitement are now your companions.”
Jesus could have been saying the same thing to the apostles at the end of Matthew’s gospel – or to any of us embarking on the great adventure of Christian life. Fear and excitement are now our companions – maybe at this moment more than any other in recent history. The challenges we face are enormous—in this country and around the world. But we do not make our journey through life alone.
Remember the words the priest says at the beginning of Mass: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
We are people of the Trinity. The Triune God is with us. Emmanuel.
This Trinity Sunday, we affirm that, and celebrate that.
As we gather around the Lord’s table, we pray with boundless gratitude for all those disciples down through history who carried out Christ’s great commission. They made it possible for us to be here today, and to continue their work tomorrow—living as one family of faith, bound together in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.