Some years ago I was cheeky enough to say to one of my brother Bishops that the Word of God at times was a question, to which he promptly replied “Nonsense”! But tonight in the book of Genesis we have heard some of the great questions placed on the lips of God in the Bible. Now I’ll let you in on a secret. In Scripture, if God asks a questions, it’s not because God doesn’t know the answer; because in the Bible God always knows everything. That’s a given. Therefore, if God does ask a question, it’s not to gain some knowledge that he doesn’t have; it’s to invite the human being to come to the knowledge that God already has.
Tonight we have heard the first question placed on the lips of God in the whole of Scripture. “Where are you?” This is after the Fall; and the force of the question is not “Which tree are you hiding behind?” It’s not about physical location. The force of the question is this: “Human being, where are you in the scheme of things?” “Are you God?” You have tried to be God, and it was a disaster. You have fallen. “Or are you nothing?” That’s not true either; because the truth is that you, human being, are a creature possessed of a unique and magnificent dignity. You are called to share in God’s own creativity. You are not God; but you are certainly not nothing. You are something created, but created in a totally unique way. So the question “Where are you?” is really the question “Who are you?” God knows the answer. The problem is that we, like Adam, do not. We have to grow in that knowledge.
Another thunderous question comes shortly after, when God says to Eve “What have you done?” Again God knows exactly what’s happened. The trouble is that Eve doesn’t. She tries to pass the buck. Adam blames Eve and then Eve blames the serpent; so the buck stops with the snake. “What have you done?” The answer is “I have sinned.” This is the sin that disfigures, even destroys the human being, finally dealing death.
For the Scripture, death is the fruit of sin, but neither sin nor death was, or is, native to the human being. You sin, I know, and you are going to die. So am I. But neither sin nor death were ever native to the human being. Neither was part of God’s plan. You weren’t created to sin and you weren’t created to die. That’s the truth. But what have we done? We have sinned in trying to play God, and therefore we end up in a kind of self-exile outside the Garden and in the desert which is for us the land of death. We are not desert creatures. We are made for the Garden.
The God who created us is very determined, such is the tenacity of his love. He therefore conceives a plan to bring us out of the desert and back home to the Garden. It’s what the Letter to the Ephesians calls “a plan for the fullness of time”. So here tonight we focus on a planning God. That’s what the Immaculate Conception proclaims: a plan that God conceives, to bring us back to Paradise beyond the power of sin and death.
It all begins with Abraham, in fact in the sterile womb of his wife Sarah. Yet at the heart of this plan stands not the patriarch but the young woman who is a nobody from nowhere – the one we call “Mary” and whom the angel Gabriel calls “full of grace”. From the moment of here conception, by the power of God that we call grace, Mary is kept free from sin. She is made sinless for the sake of the sinless one who will be born from her womb. So she is for ever beyond the clutch of sin and the power of death. The Immaculate Conception says sin is not native to us and Mary is beyond its clutch. The Assumption says death is not native to us and she is beyond its clutch as well. That’s why she is assumed in to heaven. So the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are two inseparable aspects of the proclamation of the great truth of the human being as God intended us to be from the beginning.
Tonight we celebrate not the exceptional virtue of Mary; in a sense this great feast is not about her at all. As she says “Let what you say be done to me, I am your servant”. So it is not so much about her as about what God does in her life from its first moment. Tonight we celebrate the triumph of divine grace – the grace of a God who’s only good at doing what seems impossible by bringing us out of the desert, the land of death, and home to Paradise.
This evening we ordain a priest, and a priest who is a sinner just as we are all sinners. This new priest has sinned but still God does something to him tonight. This ordination is not just something we do, not some merely human event or pious ritual. What erupts in the Cathedral tonight is the same power of God that touched Mary in the moment of her conception. That same power takes Stephen Camiolo and makes him, like Mary, a servant of the same plan. What else does the priesthood mean if not that? Ordination makes Stephen, like Mary, a minister of God’s grace and commissions him to go out and bear fruit, give birth and be gloriously fertile as was the one who is immaculate. Stephen, like Mary, says “But how can this be?” And the same answer comes to you, Stephen, as came to the Mother of Christ: “Don’t be afraid” – because the Holy Spirit overshadows you here this evening and turns you into something you could never make of yourself. Here we proclaim the triumph of God’s grace, working against all the odds and doing what seems to us impossible.
Therefore, by this Ordination Stephen Camiolo is set by God in the world as one of God’s own questions, for the rest of his life a word of the God, summoning not just Church people but everybody, the whole world, to see the magnificent truth that leads us out of the desert and into the Garden which is the home of God’s ecstasy and our true home. Amen.
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane