With the celebration of Easter, we are now approaching the season of graduations from college, and high school graduations will soon follow.
Among all the things this graduation season brings, there will be numerous commencement speeches, presuming schools find COVID-sensitive ways to hold commencements this year.
And among the many points of wisdom that graduation speakers offer, one of the most common is that the word “commencement,” strictly speaking, means that something is beginning—not that something is ending. There will also undoubtedly be lots of Shakespearean quotes and appeals to “follow your heart” and to “dream big,” and so forth.
I bring this up not just to give a clearer sense about where we’re at in the calendar (or to provoke a sense of dread in those who have lots of graduation cards to fill with cash in the coming weeks), but rather because what we heard from St. Peter in the First Reading for Easter Sunday Mass is something like a commencement address, reflecting on the past and showing how it points towards a bigger and better future.
Peter was speaking in the house of Cornelius, whom Scripture describes as a Roman centurion and a “God-fearing man” (Act 10:2). Cornelius was also a man on the brink of being baptized, after having a vision in which an angel told him to send for Peter and to listen to what he had to say. Peter also had a vision in which he was told to accompany the men who had been sent to escort him to Cornelius’ house so that he might speak to him.
What we have in last Sunday’s reading from Acts 10 is the speech Peter gave when he met Cornelius. I don’t know if there was any prior “chit-chat”, but it certainly appears that Peter got right to the point. And in these few paragraphs he laid out for Cornelius the heart of the Gospel message.
Anyone who has ever prepared a speech knows how difficult it is to hone down your message to what is really essential, and to get your point across clearly and effectively. Peter’s speech to Cornelius is a masterpiece of preaching. Here we have a man of the deepest faith, who knew Jesus, who had been a witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, who had received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and who relied on the Spirit in everything he said and did.
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