Welcome Mass Reflection 2012

Beginning on Friday, and all through Saturday and this morning, we have been engaged in a profound experience: the process of welcoming and connecting; the process of acknowledging the end of an important phase our lives as individuals and as family, and the beginning of a new important phase.  As positive and as proud as everyone is about reaching this watershed moment -- it isn't easy.  All over campus this weekend, emotions have been running a little high; the stress level a bit amplified.  Hopefully most of the events of this weekend gone well, and there have been moments of relief and opportunities to have fun.  But undoubtedly there have been moments of anxiety and, for some, maybe a few frustrating times too. 

In reflecting upon today's readings, I was struck by several elements that run through them, and the connection between these elements, and experiences that are very much a part of what this weekend is all about.  Today's readings are, in every meaningful respect, about making the choice to be in relationship with one another -- and the implications of making that choice.  These passages speak to many things, but for me they serve as an important reminder of one simple truth: they remind us that the most important relationships we have, including (or perhaps, especially) our relationship with God -- are by choice.  We are active participants in the lives we lead, and whether we are always conscious of it, we are constantly making choices with profound implications for ourselves and for those around us.

And this concept really resonates for me this opening weekend, because of three important themes that run through these readings, and through the experience of welcoming you, our newest students, and your families: the importance of relationship, the role of free will, and the central importance "faith" plays in all of this.

What a gift it is to be here, all of us together, in this space, as we turn our attention to where God is moving in our lives in this moment of restless quiet.

In our first reading today, Joshua -- the successor to Moses -- has called the tribes together in that part of the Book known as "the Covenant Ceremony."  In this chapter, Joshua outlines all the amazing things that God has done for the Israelites, reminding them that they are God's chosen people.  But then, he puts the question to them: "Choose today who you will serve -- the gods of the people into whose lands we now have come, or Yahweh, who delivered us from Egypt and sustained us in our wanderings?  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."

And the people answer: "we're not going anywhere!  God was with us at every turn, brought us out of slavery, performed miracles, protected us -- we will remain faithful to the one who loved us."   God has proven his love, and so the people affirm their relationship in a manner that reflects their awareness and commitment.  In this regard -- and reflective of much of the Old Testament -- the relationship between God and God's people is a somewhat more remote, and somewhat transactional one.  Relationship with God, the all-powerful Creator, exists in the context of covenant, of mutual commitment.  As Joshua indicates -- notwithstanding the consequences of choosing to follow a different path, it is still a choice.

Our second reading, taken from Paul's letter to the Ephesians, is once again a lesson about relationships.  Pauline scholars believe that Paul would have been in prison at the time this letter was written, and that the letter would have been meant not only for the Church at Ephesus, but for all of the communities with whom he was in contact at that time.  In this case, Paul asks his communities to deeply consider the nature of their relationship to the early Christian church, by using the image of marriage.

This summer, my family and I were blessed to attend the wedding of two Gonzaga alumni; it was a wonderful wedding and a truly fun reception -- one with great food, dancing, and even one of those photo booths.  The significance we attach to weddings underscores the very special nature of marriage: the sacred, unique commitment between two loving people who freely commit themselves to the welfare of each other and their relationship.  Whether the bond between two people is in the context of a marriage, or in other unique and important relationships, such as the very special bond between a daughter or son and their mom or dad -- Paul underscores the fact that to be a cherished and nourishing relationship, people have to give themselves over in love to the other.  In just this way, Paul says, Christ gave himself over to humanity, so that that people could see and experience the deep power of God's love.  Here, we see the love of God made manifest in a much more intimate way.  But here again, the clear implication of Paul's message is this: as powerful a relationship as the one God invites us into, to believe and to belong is a choice; the degree to which we truly commit ourselves to Christ is a decision freely made.

A significant part of this voyage you new students are now upon involves being in new relationships - or being in older relationships, in a new way.  At Gonzaga, learning how to live together in relationship, in community, is an important part of the experience.  The readings today serve to remind us that being in relationship means making choices that will cherish and nurture ourselves and each other, even or especially during challenging times -- and to remember to allow God to work through us in our relationships with each other as well.

Further, I think there is a very important message here for all of our relationships.  In the year to come, students, there will be some difficult moments.  Maybe your roommate will dump a can of Diet Coke all over on your desk and ruin a paper you've just printed out five minutes before it's due.  Maybe someone will say something about your appearance that will really make you self-conscious.  Or perhaps you will say something in a moment of frustration that will really hurt someone else. 

I think the letter to the Ephesians is enjoining us to be very generous in our relationships -- to enter into them with the intent of benefiting one another, and with the assumption that the other has our best interests at heart.  If our relationships are characterized by this approach, when difficult issues arise, we will be much more likely to deal with them against the backdrop of generosity and care, rather than suspicion and self-interest.

And of course, our Gospel reading parallels the form of the first reading. Our Gospel reading today is a continuation of the reading from last week, which saw Jesus having just set forth a complex and challenging teaching, one that really tests his followers' faith.  Up to this point, in John's gospel, Jesus has performed some miracles (for example, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes) and there are "signs" that he is special.  But in last week's Gospel, Jesus shares that he is quite literally the Son of God, and many of those who had become his disciples find this claim -- that he had come down from heaven -- un-believable -- too difficult to understand, or to accept. 

But here we see another important element, layered gently into our understanding of being in relationship with God: the concept of faith.  Multiplying loaves and fishes is itself remarkable, but if it does not ultimately contribute to the belief, in the Christian view, that Jesus is actually the Son of God, then (John is saying) the relationship with God will never reach its full potential.

"The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life, but there are some of you who do not believe.  For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted them by the Father." "Do you also want to leave?"  And Peter, on behalf of the Twelve Apostles, responds with words of faith: "Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life."

Today it seems to me that God is gently speaking through these readings to all of us, and maybe especially to you who have come to make Gonzaga your second home.  The experience of learning is an intensely relational one: relationships between faculty, staff, and fellow students form the matrix within which this whole project happens.  Over the next weeks and months, you as students are going to be confronted with many choices about how to coexist in relationship with other people.  I think that Jesus is saying to each of you, and indeed to all of us: in our decisions and in our relationships, consider the nature of the faith relationship you have with God, for it has implications for decisions we will make regarding our relationships with other people too.

Today God speaks to us, at this Mass of Welcome, and asks us all to listen deeply to our hearts, be open to His Will, and to have faith in Him.  As you join this Gonzaga University community, we acknowledge with gratitude your choice to be here, and we welcome you without reservation into relationship with us.  On this weekend of new friends and imminent departures -- when it is natural to be thinking about a million different things -- Jesus asks us to listen, to trust  - and to allow God's love to flow through us and into all of our relationships.

Thayne M McCulloh

Thayne M. McCulloh, D.Phil.
Gonzaga University

Thayne M. McCulloh, D.Phil.

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