A tale of two commencements

Author: Jonathan Malesic

I have always preferred the whimsy and color of Easter to the calculated gift economy of Christmas. The Easter Bunny doesn’t moralize; he (or she) offers pure, unmerited grace. The Resurrection is such good news that we have license to be a little silly. At Easter, we observe a culmination that also inaugurates a new beginning.


This means that Easter has something in common with the greatest feast of the academic calendar: graduation day, which marks a conclusion, even though we call the main ceremony “commencement.” As we do at Easter, we celebrate commencement with a parade, special hats, and frantic efforts to get last-minute brunch reservations.


Mc 3Easter shares more than you might think with the spring semester's other grand celebration. Photo by Matt Cashore '94

The connection between Easter and graduation was one that Blessed Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, recognized when he described education as a “work of resurrection.” The joy of education — and behind it, the pain — is already familiar to Christian experience.


Easter is great fun, but there’s a part of the resurrection story that’s harder to accept and celebrate. Necessarily, someone who’s going to be resurrected first needs to die.


That horror of Good Friday is not simply erased by the glory of the Resurrection. The gospels say that after he was raised, Jesus’ body was transformed. He could overcome its old limitations and walk through walls. But his body still bore the marks of torture and death. Thomas insists on touching the wounds in Jesus’ hands, feet, and side. There is no way to forget Good Friday completely.


At a Catholic university, the theology of resurrection ought to inform the mission of the institution. But Moreau’s metaphor can help to make sense of the whole educational enterprise. No matter the religious mission of their college, students’ old ideas and habits must die so that a mindset can develop that better enables a successful and reflective life.


As all students (past or present) know, education involves intellectual pain — and not only because it takes time and effort to learn things like the pluperfect tense or the intricacies of a cost curve. Each student brings preconceived notions to college, some of them outright false. Physics students, for example, typically come to introductory courses with Aristotelian assumptions about the motion of objects; these assumptions need to be broken down and replaced by Newtonian ones. This isn’t easy. Students often continue to talk about motion in Aristotelian terms even after they have passed courses in Newtonian mechanics. Long-held mental models die hard.


College may also be socially painful, as the values students arrive with — shaped by family and community — are reshaped by strangers. For first-generation college students in particular, the glory of graduation may not erase the pain of separating from family geographically, economically, even culturally. The wounds remain for a long time, reopened every Thanksgiving when the graduate returns home from a faraway city.


Education, then, aims to transform students into better versions of themselves, but only through the death of what they once were.


A final element of the resurrection story speaks to the obligations that educated persons have. After he is risen, Jesus, in all four gospels, comes back to the ones he loves. He dines with his disciples, he continues to teach, and most important, he provides an example of his resurrection to show what’s in store for his followers.


The obligation of the educated person is to come back and lead others toward the life education makes possible. College graduates have a responsibility to educate others, to raise them up.


Paul says the resurrected Christ is the “first fruits” of the kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:20.23). Young alumni are the first fruits of education, especially if they are among the first in their families to go to college. Whether they realize it or not, they model what it means to have a higher education. Younger siblings take notice.


As a work of resurrection, education — like its Easter equivalent — is an abundant gift. Moreau said that by educating one student, teachers educate whole families, down through generations. When educators look at their students, they see their students’ children and grandchildren, neighbors, coworkers, friends, and even people in distant countries whom they’ve never met. Just as the thousands of years of the faithful were portended by Christ’s death and resurrection, so too does graduation represent more than the students turning their tassels. Beneath each mortarboard is every life the graduate can help transform.


Jonathan Malesic is a theologian and writer living in Dallas who is working on a book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic. His work has appeared in America, Commonweal, The New Republic and The Chronicle of Higher Education.