Priya sahódaree sahódaranmaare
Dear brothers and sisters,
The English word “bishop” comes from the Greek episkopos, which has two meanings. The first is overseer and the second is visitor, the implication being that you can’t do the first, oversee, unless you do the second, visit. So John whom we ordain bishop is to be a visitor, but what does that mean?
The Scripture we have heard helps answer the question. In the episode called the Visitation, Mary becomes a visitor. In the Gospel of Luke, Mary’s visit takes its place within the larger theme of God’s long-awaited visitation. We say in the Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord…he has visited his people” (1:68); after Jesus has restored the widow’s son to life in Nain, the crowd says: “God has visited his people” (7:16); and Jesus himself weeps over Jerusalem because it “did not recognise the time of God’s visitation” (19:44). For Luke, then, God is a visitor.
For reasons not entirely clear, Mary goes to the hill country near Jerusalem to visit Elizabeth, a relative of some kind whom she knows to be pregnant against all the odds. Mary, it seems, travels alone, though that would’ve been dangerous for a young woman; and the long journey south would’ve been difficult, especially if Mary were herself pregnant.
When she arrives at the house of Zechariah, Mary is overtaken by the Holy Spirit a second time. The angel Gabriel had said to her that she would be “overshadowed by the Holy Spirit” in order to conceive the royal Messiah, and so she is in a kind of proto-Pentecost. Now the same Spirit comes upon Elizabeth who utters, first, a loud cry and then a prophetic word. She greets Mary as “the mother of my Lord”, a title reserved for the mother of the king, the Queen Mother, who was the most powerful woman in the realm when the king had many wives but only one mother. Elizabeth then declares Mary blessed not because she has conceived physically but because she has believed that the divine promise to her would be fulfilled. As the Church Fathers say, Mary conceives in her heart by faith before she conceives in her womb; and it is for her faith that she is declared blessed.
Mary believes against all the odds. She believes that she will conceive as a virgin. Scripture presents women like Elizabeth who conceive by divine intervention beyond the normal age of child-bearing, but never before in the Bible do we find a virginal conception. Mary is asked to believe that something that has never happened before will now happen by the power of the Holy Spirit; and she says fiat, let it be done to me.
In that moment, without realising it, Mary signs a blank cheque. The promise is fulfilled, but in very strange ways. She gives birth to the royal Messiah in a stable and lays him in a manger; in the Temple she hears a prophecy that her child will be rejected and that she herself will suffer, though Gabriel had said nothing of this; her royal child will end up on a Cross as an executed outlaw. The promise itself was strange, but time and again its fulfilment will seem much stranger. Yet Mary never ceases to speak her fiat.
But in what we have heard from Scripture she is not the only one who goes to the hill country. We also hear of Moses ascending Mt Sinai, not to meet another human being as Mary does but to meet God. As with Mary, the ascent is difficult and Moses goes alone. He goes so that God may speak to him, that he may listen to God and then speak God’s word to the people who remain at the foot of the mountain. God says that a dense cloud will be the sign of the divine presence, and a little later the Book of Exodus says that “Moses entered the thick darkness where God was” (20:21). Moses is told to warn the people not to forget what God has done for them and to urge them to obey God’s voice so that they may truly be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. For Moses, the call is to listen to God, even if he doesn’t see, and to pass on to the people what he has heard from God, even if he doesn’t fully understand.
Mary and Moses, then, stand among us here and speak to us of what it will mean for John to be an overseer, a visitor. Both Mary and Moses make the ascent alone, though there is more to be said. Mary is not really alone, because the Spirit comes upon her and because of the one she bears in her womb. Moses is not really alone, because he bears the people in his heart as he goes up to God. The bishop too is often alone, since there is a kind of solitariness in any leadership. Yet in another sense the bishop is never alone: he too is overshadowed by the Spirit and bears the people in his heart day and night.
For Mary and Moses the ascent is dangerous and difficult; and so too it is at times for the bishop. There can be dangers and difficulties from within the Church: seemingly insoluble problems, a spirit of worldliness, factions, grievances, betrayals, the ravages of sin in his own life and in the life of others. There can also be dangers and difficulties from outside the Church, especially in a culture like this which is seemingly indifferent or even hostile to religion. Trying to chart a course for the Syro-Malabar Church in a culture vastly different from anything in India has its own dangers and difficulties. Failing to engage local culture in an effort to preserve Syro-Malabar identity is one danger; losing the distinctiveness of Syro-Malabar identity in an effort to engage local culture is another. The Syro-Malabar bishop in the Antipodes has to tread a wise and sensitive middle path; and that can be difficult.
Both Mary and Moses put their faith in God, though the divine promise may seem strange, even impossible. Both of them say yes, but in saying yes they sign a blank cheque. They don’t know what they’re saying yes to. John may think he knows what he’s saying yes to today. But he doesn’t. Much will happen to him in the future that is strange and unexpected. The challenge will be for him, like Mary and Moses, to keep saying yes, even when things turn out quite differently than he expects. That kind of faith will be decisive in his ministry and mission as bishop.
At the heart of that ministry and mission, there will be an experience of encounter. It will be in the first place an encounter with God’s people, the kind of deep, even intimate encounter we see between Mary and Elizabeth. But it will also be, as we see with Moses, an encounter with God himself, a ceaseless encounter with God which will mean entering the dense cloud and even the darkness – which you, John, as a Carmelite will understand. Both the encounter with God’s people and with God himself will be for the sake of listening, listening to the deeper voice which will lead you on so that you may lead others, speaking to them not your own word but God’s word, which they in turn can speak to the world as a priestly people.
With this ordination, John, you become an eparch. Like episkopos, the word eparch comes from Greek and means “one who rules over”. At times too you will be referred to as Mar, which comes from Syriac and means “Lord”. These are grand historic titles but they can be dangerous. If you are a bishop who lords it over others you will not be an overseer after God’s own heart. There will be no divine visitation, no encounter; you will never succeed in going to the hill country, in making the ascent of Mt Carmel.
Humility is the only path to the summit, the only way into the encounter. As St Paul says to the Romans, “Do not be proud, but associate with the lowly. Do not claim to be wiser than you are”. In the way Pope Francis has shown, seek out and favour the least; and don’t think you have to know everything or have the answer to every question and the solution to every problem. Neither Mary nor Moses did. But God does, and he is found most readily among the lowly. In going up, you must reach down, as God has done to us in his visitation.
Figures from the distant past like Mary and Moses may seem an unlikely couple to be helping a new bishop find his way into the future. Yet that is how God chooses to speak to John and to all of us in this moment. Listening with the ears of the heart, we understand that a new bishop, and any bishop in fact, needs not only to heed the voice of Mary and Moses but to become both of them. His name is John and he stands in the tradition of Thomas, but this eparch will need to be both Mary and Moses if he is truly to form God’s people as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, borne on eagles’ wings to the high places where the Risen Lord comes to meet them in the morning light and they will sing forever, “My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”. Amen.
Preached in Melbourne – May 31, 2023