(Karen Carpenter croons softly in background)
Last weekend was filled with rituals of transition and beginning. I officiated a wedding Friday evening, and on Saturday, attended two commencements: in the morning, as a faculty member celebrating my students, and in the evening, as a proud dad celebrating my son and daughter-in-law’s completion of their PhDs. (I guess I can’t demand that they call me “Doctor Lee” anymore.)
One of the reasons I enjoy doing weddings is for the opportunity to speak into relationships that are still forming, before hurtful habits and negative perceptions become set in stone. Couples are apt to focus more energy on having the “perfect” wedding than on preparing to be married well. I suspect that the ceremony I give couples doesn’t always fit their more idealized romantic expectations (or those of their guests), because I tend to emphasize what happens after the honeymoon–what it means for two imperfect people to make a commitment to truly love each other amidst the daily stresses and strains of marriage. Research suggests, however, that the most successful and stable couples are the ones who begin with more realistic expectations, so I probably won’t be changing that emphasis anytime soon.
And commencement: as noted in a previous post, the very word connotes new beginnings, which in turn expresses the cultural ideal that higher education opens new doors of opportunity. As a recent report from the Brookings Institute suggests, there’s still cause for cautious optimism in that regard. But as with marriage, success is not to be taken for granted, especially in today’s troubled and complex economy.
For Christians, what matters is being able to see through the rituals–weddings and commencements alike–to the stories they represent. We can celebrate cultural narratives of romance, achievement, and success, or use these occasions to remind ourselves of God’s ongoing story and our place in it.
That’s what I appreciate about the seminary’s yearly commencement ritual. Our retiring president, Richard Mouw, gave his usual stirring charge to the graduates, reminding them of their calling to serve God and his kingdom. Near the end of the ceremony, the entire congregation stood and recited these words:
Almighty God, we acknowledge that it is your grace and love that has brought each one of us to this moment of fulfillment and beginning. May we, in union with the people of God everywhere, be instruments of your peace and ambassadors of your love to declare to all the world that Jesus Christ is Lord, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
And then we all sang “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” The last verse of the hymn typically brings tears to my eyes: “O that with yonder sacred throng we at his feet may fall / We’ll join the everlasting song, and crown him Lord of all!”
It’s the combination that does it. Here we are, a large crowd that has come to celebrate, singing together of the day in which we will join our voices in everlasting song. Somehow, I am transported, and the reality of God’s kingdom and our shared hope as his people strikes me with greater force.
It’s good to mark new beginnings with rituals that first look backward and then propel us forward. But as each chapter ends and a new one begins, may our rituals deepen our participation in God’s story, the one from which our lives as Christians draw hope and meaning.