Homily for the Baccalaureate Service for the Graduates of
Virginia High School
Proverbs 4:1 | I Corinthians 1:4-9 | John 14:1-14
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This evening we gather to celebrate the graduation of the 2023 senior class of Virginia High School. I am grateful to the members of the Virginia Ministerial Alliance for their invitation to speak to you this evening and, on their behalf, I thank all you for coming on such a beautiful spring evening.
While we have gathered to mark a departure from high school, more importantly, we gather to render thanks to Almighty God for the continuing work of his grace in these graduates. Indeed, dear graduates, with the Apostle Saint Paul, we give thanks to God that in Christ Jesus “you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you” (I Corinthians 1:4-6).
To be sure, my young friends, you know perfectly well that after receiving your high school diploma you do not feel as if you possess all knowledge; you are all too aware that there is much you do not yet know. This is why the Lord Jesus says to you this evening, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me” (John 14:1).
If I may be honest and frank with you, your hearts have many reasons to be troubled. For years now, some of your parents have expected far more of you than parents of previous generations expected of their children. Some of your parents have even gone so far as to expect you to achieve things beyond your natural abilities and have put exceeding pressure upon you to attain the heights of greatness without equipping you for such a climb.
With the advent of the various forms of social media, your lives have been on public display in a manner hitherto unimaginable, adding to the pressure you already likely felt. These same social media platforms have encouraged you to compare yourselves to others in unreasonable ways and to project a false image of yourself to the world, further compounding the troubles of your hearts. As if these were not already enough stressors for you, the various forms of the news media have made you feel responsibility for historical actions in which you played no part and for events happening in distant lands over which you have no control.
There is also the daily stress of contemporary familial life that has been thrust upon many of you as one parent vies against another or as families run frantically to and fro in the vain attempt to always be busy and never at rest.
I do not mention any of this to depress you or to add to the worries of your hearts; rather, strange as it may seem to say so, I mention this to encourage you. You have survived your high school years and now a wide world is open to you, if you will permit me to use such a cliché. With your graduation from high school, you now likely feel a newfound freedom and greater responsibility for your life. This need not be a daunting prospect. Let me repeat Jesus’ words to you: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Why?
Your hearts need not be troubled because you know him who is the way through this life. Your hearts need not be troubled because you know him who is the truth of existence. Your hearts need not be troubled because you know him who is life unending (cf. John 14:6). And in order that you may keep on the way, hold fast to the truth, and receive the fullness of life, the Lord Jesus Christ “will keep you firm to the end,” if only you entrust your heart to him whose heart was pierced for us (I Corinthians 1:8; cf. John 19:34). Your hearts will not be troubled so long as you remember “God is faithful” (I Corinthians 1:9).
You may be thinking I have been talking long enough. I ask you to indulge me for a few minutes more. I promise not to keep you much longer.
My favorite author is J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and a host of other things. He is my favorite author partly because his books have profoundly moved my heart, but also because he exposes his own heart to his readers not only in his books, but especially in his letters.
In 1969, the daughter of Tolkien’s publisher wrote him as part of a school project to ask the question, “What is the purpose of life?” Perhaps this is a question also in your hearts this evening.
Tolkien answered Camilla Unwin’s letter on May 20, 1969, with apologies for his tardiness (he was a university professor and was otherwise occupied near the end of the academic year). Among other things, Tolkien notes that “if you do not believe in a personal God the question: ‘What is the purpose life?’ is unaskable and unanswerable.” Such a question is unaskable for one who does not believe in a God who cares for us individually because there is no one from who an answer can be sought. If there is no personal God who created all things, then there is no purpose, no meaning, to human life. Without a personal God, life is just a progression of succeeding days until we die. But if there is a personal God who created me, if there is a God who loves me passionately, then life has a purpose, a meaning, that can be discovered.
Tolkien goes on to answer Camilla’s question as a sincerely devout Catholic. The chief purpose of life, he says,
…for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis: Laudamus te, benedicamus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam. We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour.
This answer, he goes on to say, “is much too long, and also much too short, on such a question.”
The Gloria in Excelsis is one of the oldest hymns of the Church. Its roots go back to the Gospel of Saint Luke who says, concerning the Birth of the Savior, “And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2:13-14). Someone – we do not know who – in the first decades of the Church poetically expounded on this verse in praise of God. This poem was then put to music by which it entered into the liturgical worship of the first Christians. Saint Hillary of Poitiers translated it into Latin from the original Greek text about the year a.d. 360. The full hymn goes something like this:
Glory to God in the
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise you,
we bless you,
we adore you,
we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King,
O God almighty Father.
Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father
have mercy on us.
For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father.
The roots of this hymn are ancient and the Church has not ceased to sing it in any number of musical settings since it was first composed.
Now I know you may be wondering why I’m talking about Christmas this evening. The reason is simple.
The Church, in the Gloria, has extended this song of praise, which the angels sang in response to the event of the holy night, into a hymn of joy at God’s glory – “we praise you for your glory”. We praise you for the beauty, for the greatness, for your goodness, which becomes visible to us this night. The appearing of beauty, of the beautiful, makes us happy without our having to ask what use it can serve. God’s glory, from which all beauty derives, causes us to break out in astonishment and joy. Anyone who catches a glimpse of God experiences joy…
The Birth of Christ Jesus is not simply an event relegated to the past; it is one the resonates throughout time, just as every event in the life of the Savior is present in every time and place, even in your life and mine. The continual recollection of this leads to an deepening knowledge of God. As we grow in the knowledge of God and of his ways, we are led to fulfill the chief purpose of life: to praise and thank God who bestows his love upon us in heretofore unimaginable ways. The recollection of the depths of God’s love revealed to us in the Lord Jesus is proof for us that God is always faithful. If you allow your hearts to rest in this certain knowledge, they will not be troubled but will be kept firm until the day the Lord comes.
As you look to the future, dear graduates, do not forget this; do not neglect the memory of what the Lord has done for us. In the moments of the struggles and the joys of life, lift your hearts and sing with all that is in you, “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory!” Such a prayer made with sincerity will always bring peace to your heart and will lead you to the eternal praise of God in the Father’s house (cf. John 14:2). Amen.