Catholics bristle when the Eucharist is referred to as a symbol not simply because we believe in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament but also because we have come to think a symbol is merely “like” what it represents, standing for something that is absent, not present.
But a deeper understanding of this word shows that a true symbol catches up in itself more than it could possibly be imagined to contain. Infinitely more than the sum of its parts, a symbol holds and reveals more than it appears to be: a universe of meaning, experience and reality. A symbol does not stand alone. Ritual activity functions as the context in which a symbol is proclaimed, celebrated and entered into by those who revere it.
While not in the least attempting to put the Eucharist and graduation ceremonies on equal footing, let me suggest that a university commencement is a ritual of symbol-making in just the sense I have described.
Commencement is an initiation rite through which new members are welcomed by the already initiated. Vested in caps and gowns and academic hoods, participants form a procession respecting and honoring the academy’s hierarchy from doctor to bachelor. There are words, signs and gestures of acceptance, belonging and relationship. Consider the valedictory and other speeches; the conferral of degrees, the calling of names, the imposition of doctoral hoods, the awarding of medals; and the presentation of diplomas caligraphed with longed-for credentials, handed down from authority to those now fully recognized as sons and daughters of the alma mater.
Commencement is a complex ritual through which the life of the school disclosed, celebrated and entered into by those who revere its symbols and the reality they hold and reveal.
On account of all this, a graduate proudly displays a diploma so that others will know that he or she has a personal share in the universe of meaning and life particular to the school whose seal the parchment bears.