Anthony Esolen on Letting Our Children Go Home (A Graduation Address)
Ladies and gentlemen, parents, friends, and graduates: I am reminded tonight of the story of a young man who went on a journey with his family. It was not an unusual journey. We’re told that the family would make it every year, going to the great city to commemorate a night more than a thousand years before, when by the might of God their ancestors bid farewell to a land of bondage, but a land that had yet been their home, to wander forth into the desert, as God would lead them, to another land, one flowing with milk and honey.
Imagine that family on the road back from Jerusalem. Imagine the mules and carts, the father and the uncles lugging sacks of provisions, the aunts tending to small children trying to wander off, the mother chatting happily with her kin. Imagine all the dust and noise of a family on the road, that knows exactly where it is going—home. And then, perhaps at nightfall, when the clan gathers around a few fires for supper, the mother and father look around and see that their little boy, a little boy no longer, is not with Uncle David or Aunt Hannah. He is not there.
I know that you’ll all return home after our small celebration tonight, your families intact. But tonight is what we call a “commencement,” because something begins, and that means that something ends.
What ends is the time in which your children are under your direct tutelage. You have taught them to count and spell and read. You have taught them where Kansas is, and how to hit a baseball, and what the word “hypotenuse” means. You have taught them to be virtuous sons and daughters, who pray to their Father in heaven, as your own parents taught you, as Jesus taught his disciples, long ago. Yet one evening you will look about the campfires and the tents, and the beloved son or daughter will not be there.
We know what the saintly Mary and Joseph did, when they saw that Jesus was not with them. They did what any good parents would do. They panicked. They rushed back to Jerusalem to look for him, somewhere, anywhere.
But before I remind you of what Jesus said to them when they found him, I’d like to note that in the Gospels we often see Jesus bidding people farewell, as if he knew that we could only come to know him best if we sought him out, amid the dust and noise of the road, or the crowds of the Temple, or the faces of people a thousand years hence, who do not know him, though it was only through him that they were made.
“In a little while,” he says to his apostles, “you shall not see me.” “I am going,” he says, “where you cannot follow.” “I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine with you again,” he says on that greatest of Passover feasts, “until I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” On the evening of that first Easter day, he tarries with two disciples at an inn on the road to Emmaus, but only when he blesses and breaks the bread for the meal do they recognize him; and when they recognize him, he disappears from their sight.
His final farewell he bids them on the top of the mount of Bethany, where he instructs them to commence—to go forth, “and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” assuring them that he would be with them still, even unto the end of time.
Seeking & Sorrowing
“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” said Jesus once, and it’s no wonder, seeing as he was so often on the road. How pleasant it would be to tarry awhile, or to stay in one blessed place forever.
Peter would have liked that. “Lord,” he said at the top of Mount Tabor, “it is good for us to be here! Let’s pitch three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” One of the evangelists goes on to apologize for Peter, saying that at that moment he was out of his senses.
Yes; and we are the same way. You watch your small child coloring a green dragon in a book, or plinking out a tune on a toy piano, or laughing with friends after a graduation ceremony like this one, and you say, “It is good for us to be here! Let us pitch our tents and stay. Let it never change.” Or in your heart you try to make a bargain with the Lord. “Let this one day, let this one day be mine; let all the rest be thine.”
Jesus well understood that love. He tells his disciples the story of another young man, one perhaps no older than the fine young people we see before us tonight, who said to his father, “Give me my portion of the inheritance.” And with that, he set out to a far country, and squandered that money on loose living. Whether the boy bothered to say goodbye, we are not told. But when a famine struck that land, he was reduced to tending swine—that must have been, for the Jews, a very far country indeed—and he longed to eat some of the filthy husks they fed to the filthy animals. At last he came to his senses, and returned, sadder and wiser, to his father’s house.
But the boy Jesus had never left his Father’s house. When Mary and Joseph finally saw him, after having missed him for three days,
Note that well. The parents felt sorrow; and Jesus, who would grow to be a man of sorrows, despised of men, understood. Another woman named Mary would seek him on another third day, and miss him, and weep, not knowing where they had taken him. But Jesus leaves, and behold, he is with us still. So he reveals himself to both. To his mother he says, patiently instructing her, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Then he returned home with them, and lived with them quietly, learning his foster-father Joseph’s trade, caring for his mother after Joseph’s death, and waiting for the time when his public mission must commence.
Commencement & Fulfillment
I know, fathers and mothers, that you have trained your children up in the Lord, and have showed them the way to go. Some of these youngsters I have known since they were small. I have watched them grow in wisdom and understanding. I join with you all in congratulating them on their fine success, and wishing them good fortune as they pack up their belongings in a bag at the end of a stick, and set forth on the road of life.
My prayer, though, is not that they will achieve fame and glory in a far country, even that far country called the United States of America. It is that someday, maybe after some sorrow, after the heart has missed the familiar voice, you will find them, or they will find you, and someone will say, “Now, what was that cause for concern? Did you not know I must be about my father’s business?”
Those are the first recorded words of Jesus. It is the last moment in which we see his earthly family together. It is a commencement. It is also a fulfillment. We are one for a little while, and then no longer. Parents, children, friends, we have the word of that same Jesus that we who believe will be one again, in our Father’s house.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Commencement Day” first appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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