[Homily: Grade School Baccalaureate Mass, 3.28.12; cf. Daniel 3:14-20, 91-92, 95]
This is a happy day. You may remember, not long ago, you were a very, very young child in the very unfamiliar place called Ateneo de Davao. You were possibly very excited to be here, but possibly also rather scared. You didn’t know the other kids; you didn’t know the teachers; you didn’t know where anything was. All you had were assurances from your Mom or Dad that things would be okay. That was a long, long time ago. Since then, many of those unfamiliar kids have become your friends; the teachers who used to terrify you, you’ve found are generally nice; some of them, you’ve come to love. Meanwhile, that very unfamiliar place has become a second home. Since then, you’ve made a lot of friends, some older, some younger, many of the same age, some girls, some boys. You’ve also learned a lot. When you came here, you did not know how to read. Now you do. When you began here, you had no idea how to do long division or extract square roots. Now you do. You’ve learned so many things: If you mother says, “Add up the restaurant bill,” you can. If your father says, “Write a letter to your Tito Joe telling him you’re graduating, “ you can. If your younger sister says she knows nothing about computers, you can sit down with her and explain to her the computer’s many parts; in fact, you can explain even to your parents the difference between hardware and software; you can teach them how to use Word or Excel or Power Point. You could tell them about email and Facebook and Twitter. In fact, to your visiting balikbayans from the United States, you can explain to them who Jose Rizal or Andres Bonifacio or Apolinario Mabini were, just as you can tell them about the EDSA Revolution and the father and mother of our President Noynoy Aquino.
You could also help explain to your younger brothers the difference between right and wrong, the importance of not cheating, the need to be obedient to your parents, the need to help keep our environment clean and healthy for all, and the need to be faithful and grateful to God the Father in loving Jesus.
In these years you have learned so much, and today, officially, we declare you graduates of the Ateneo de Davao University Grade School. We say, officially, in Grade School you have done well. We say, officially, you are now ready to take on the challenges of High School. You have solid foundations on which you can continue to grow as a good human being before God, as youthful citizens in the midst of other citizens of the Philippines, and as a grateful creatures benefitting from the mountains and valleys, the rivers and streams, the forests and flowers, the birds and the fish which God created and placed in our shared global garden for all of us.
For your gift of grade school education, do not fail to show your gratitude to your parents. This graduation day is not only your day; it is their day. Give them a special hug; give them a grateful kiss; write them a card of gratitude. Thank them for the sacrifices they have made to give you a good education here at the Ateneo de Davao. Thank your teachers, thank your Headmaster. Thank, most especially, your Lord, Jesus Christ, who insisted, “Let the children come to me!” Thank your Father in heaven, who in his Son, shows his Love for us with every single sunrise and sunset, every single meal we eat, and with every breath of air we breathe. Give thanks to your God. Not just for today, but forever: as your God is loyal to you, be loyal to your God.
What would you do to show your love and loyalty to your God? Would you be willing for your God to forego an hour of playing Angry Bird in order to go to Mass on Sunday? Would you be willing to give up chocolates and cakes for Lent in order to be able to share food with God’s poor? Would you be able to say I would rather suffer and die rather than betray my God?
In fact, on your graduation day, in the first reading from the Book of Daniel, that is what the remarkable story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago is about.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago were three young Jews who know they were loved by Yahweh, their one God. As young Jews, like you, they could recite his Ten Commandments by heart. The first commandment they knew very well, as you do: “I am the Lord, Thy God. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.” In this commandment we know: there is only one God, uncreated Creator, all-wise, all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful. All other ‘gods’ are false, made by man, that mislead us, steal our loyalty away from the true God, fill us with false hopes and ugly dreams. In our story, Nebukadnezzar, the King of Babylon, had fashioned a beautiful, glistening, alluring statue of gold, and called it a god. The King commanded, “Whenever you hear the sound of the music, the sound of the trumpet, flute, lyre, harp, bagpipe, and all the other musical instruments, you must fall down and worship the statue-god I have made.” He did not say, “For if you worship the statue-god I have made, you worship me.” But that is what he meant.
But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago were loyal to their one, true God, the unseen God with the sacred heart. So they said, “No, we will not worship your golden god! We worship the one true God!” At their defiance, their unwillingness to fall down and worship, he was enraged and shouted, “If you do not worship my golden statue, I will throw you in the burning furnace.” Their reply was very courageous, a defiant “Go ahead!” full of trust in the saving goodness of Lord: “If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue that you have set up!”
This defiance angered the king. “How could these insignificant serfs be loyal to a God they do not see, when the statue-god I offer them is so infinitely more alluring? How can these impudent people value their God more than their lives, making me look like a godless fool.” So he undertook to kill them. The furnace was heated with fire seven times more intense than normal. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago were bound by the strongest men in the land, then cast into the fiery furnace.
The point of course was to burn them to a crisp, reduce them to ashes, that could no longer defy the power of the King. But when the King went to check that they were decimated, he discovered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago free of their fetters, walking in the fire, talking with a fourth figure, the saving angel of the Lord. Eventually the angel of the Lord allowed the fires to consume their tormentors, then drove the fire away. The incident made such an impression that even King Nebukadnezzar praised the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago and decreed that no on should insult this God.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago knew themselves loved by the one, true, powerful God. They proved themselves loyal to him. You too! On your graduation day, you are being invited to show your loyalty to the one God, and worship no false god before him, for the rest of your lives. So many in our modern world worship false gods. There are some who worship a golden statue of money. Because money is the most important thing in their lives, this is what they really worship, not the God in the Eucharist giving of himself that we might be saved. Some worship the golden statue of food. Food is the highest value in life, everything else can be sacrificed for food. So they steal and cheat in order to eat in the best restaurants and drink the best wines. For others, the worship the insatiable god of possessions – the god that demands you possess the latest of the celfons, the newest of the iPads, the coolest of the games, the fastest of the computers, all so that you might think you are a better person because you possess so much.
But on the day of your graduation, you know that is not true. You are called to be loyal to the one true God, worshipping only him. And because he is a God of love, in bowing down before him, you too ought to be loving. Because he is a God of kindness and compassion, in bowing down before him, you too ought to be compassionate. Because he is a God of forgiveness, in bowing down before him, you should also be forgiving. And because he is God who became human in this his created world to serve us all, in bowing down before him, you should also become more perfectly human in serving others and caring for this world.
This is a happy day, because you are graduating from the Grade School of the Ateneo de Davao University. You are no longer little children. You have grown in age, knowledge and grace. Congratulations! We entrust you to the one God who loves you so much, to save you from the fiery furnace, he sent his Son to pluck you away from hell-fires and suffer and die for you. Throughout your lives, be loyal to that God. He loves you. May you all be enflamed with love for him.