Mary as the Ark of the Covenant

Stan-William Ede

It is fitting to reflect on one of the many things that the Bible teaches us about the Blessed Virgin Mary, who among all created beings is matchless in excellence and unsurpassed in virtue. Our theme for this reflection is one taken from her litany of titles, the “Ark of the Covenant”.

To engender a fuller grasp of the truth that Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant, it is pertinent to revisit what is known about the Ark of the Covenant in its Old Testament context. This revisitation itself impels us to first understand the phenomena of biblical prefiguration and biblical refiguration, which can be simply called “Typology” in the biblical texts. We learn from the Bible that the Old Testament is a “shadow” or “figure” of the New Testament (cf. Heb 8:1-13). As St. Augustine coins it, “The Old Testament is the New concealed, but the New Testament is the Old revealed.” (Catechizing the Uninstructed 4:8).

The issue of “typology” requires further explanation, but because of space, the explanation here is very brief and articulated within this single paragraph. There were many events, persons and things in the Old Testament which prefigure other events, persons and things that would come later in the New Testament. The reality in the Old Testament which prefigured is known as a “type” of what is to come in the New Testament. And the reality in the New Testament which refigures by fulfilling an Old Testament type is called “antitype”, meaning that it (“antitype”) is greater than the “type”. For example, just as the first man, “Adam” was a type of the one (Jesus) who was to come” (Rom 5:14), the first woman Eve prefigured Mary, who refigures the Divine original will from “fallen” (Eve) to “sinless” (Mary). The “antitype” (in the New Testament) is always greater than “type” (in the Old Testament). In fact, the “antitype” is the fulfillment of the “type”. As such, Jesus Christ is infinitely greater than Adam, Mary is greater than Eve, and the New Testament is greater than the Old Testament. With this we set ourselves on the path of understanding Mary as the New Ark of the New Covenant, beginning with a retrospective glance into the Old Testament context and significance of the Ark of the Covenant.

In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was a sacred chest-box which contained the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments of God were inscribed. God himself gave instructions to Moses and the Israelites on how to build it, including its size and the materials to be used for its construction (Exod 25:10-21). Made of acacia wood, the Ark was overlaid in and out with the purest gold, and had a golden crown or ream around it. For a more elaborate description of the physical and material characteristics of the Ark, we are invited to read Exod 25:10-16 again. Our focus here however, will be directed toward its spiritual essence, because the “spiritual significance” is actually what constitutes the raison-d’être of the Ark.

As it is revealed in the Bible, the Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred object in the Old Testament. In fact, it was the holiest and most powerful thing on earth outside God himself, for it was the visible sign of God’s presence and protection among his people. In Exod 27-29, when God gave Moses instructions regarding the building of the tabernacle, the making and installation of the ark was given a culminating import. Within the tabernacle, Moses was to place the ark. It is noteworthy that beside the two stone tablets of the covenant, the ark also contained a golden jar holding manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded (cf. Exod 25-29; Heb 9:4). Because it contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Ark represented the covenant between God and Israel (cf. Deut 10:4-5). And for all that the Ark contained and stood for, it was also called the “Ark of the Testimony” (cf. Ex. 25:21-22; Num 7:89).

At that time, Moses did the work and prepared the sanctuary just as the Lord had commanded. All the Israelites cooperated with him, and they placed the Ark in the Holy of Holies. Then on completion, “… the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod 40:34-35). During the day, a pillar of cloud covered and filled it, and during the night, it was a pillar of fire (Exod 40:38). The verbal root shakhan in Hebrew which means “to cover” or “to overshadow” is used along with the metaphor of a cloud to represent the presence and glory of God, hence the designation, Shekinah Glory, which is common in our day to day use of Christian language. The Shekinah Glory overshadowed the tabernacle of the Lord, for there in the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant by which God made his all-powerful and protective presence manifest and felt (cf. Exod. 40:34-35; Num 9:18-22).

Speaking to Moses and to all Israel of the significance of the Ark, God said: “And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the Ark of the Testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Exod 25:21-22). And truly, just as the Lord had told them, “… when Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the LORD, he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two cherubim; and God spoke to him” (Num 7:89). Assuredly, this was the dwelling place of God among his people. The love with which the people received it, the profound awe and reverence which they accorded it, and the diligence with which they accompanied it in solemn procession, cannot be overemphasized.

After the death of Moses, Joshua took the baton of leadership to lead the Israelites in the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land. Throughout that time the Ark of the Covenant protected the Israelites and assured them victory in their battles. When God wanted to punish the Israelites for their sins, he caused them to be defeated in battle against the Philistines and allowed the Ark to be captured by the conquering enemy (cf. 1 Sam 4:1-22). While “the Glory of the Lord departed from Israel at that time, for the Ark had been captured” (1 Sam 4:22), the same Shekinah Glory had a devastating effect upon the land of the captors, the Philistines. Their princes and all the peoples suffered many plagues and death that were inflicted upon them by the overwhelming presence of God in their midst since they were not consecrated into the sacred covenant and did not know nor observe commandments of God, (cf. 1 Sam 5:1-12). The Philistines thereupon returned the Ark to the land of Israel with great reverence and honour (1 Sam 6:1-16). King David brought the Ark into Jerusalem, the holy city (2 Sam 6:1-23), and his son, King Solomon built the temple and brought in the Ark into the “inner sanctuary”, the “Holy of Holies”. It was this reality that constituted the core essence of the temple, the presence of God through the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies that was overshadowed by the Shekinah Glory (cf. 1 Kgs 8:1-11, 12-62).

After many years of disobedience, idolatry and apostasy by the Israelites, God gave them again into the hand of captors. First the Assyrians conquered and exiled the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C (cf. 2 Kgs 17:5-18), and later the Babylonian conquered and exiled the Southern Kingdom of Judah in two phases, in 597 B.C. (2 Kgs 24:11-16) and in 586 B.C. (2 Kgs 25:1-21). At the second invasion in 586 B. C., the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and God caused the Ark to disappear, for its mission in the Old Testament had been accomplished. The Ten Commandments and the Law of God will now be written in the hearts of believers by a new covenant (cf. Jer 31:31-35) . From then on, nothing was ever mentioned of the old ark again. Even when the Babylonians carted away the treasures they found in the temple of the Lord, there is no evidence in the Bible that the invaders found the Ark. The mystery of the disappearance of the Ark in the Old Testament can best be understood from the perspective of the refiguration of the Ark in the New Testament and its significance in the new covenant of God with his people, wherein God now dwells with his people in a new and profoundly rich way.

The Old Testament ark was only a figure of the Ark of the New Covenant. That Mary is the “Ark of the New Covenant” (or to put it the other way, the “New Ark of the Covenant”) is divine truth which is revealed in Sacred Scripture. Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is God himself, made flesh (Jn 1:1-14) so as to dwell among us that we may “receive from his fullness, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). When God took flesh to dwell amongst men, his first tabernacle on earth, the “inner sanctuary”, “Holy of Holies” was the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary conceived Jesus in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, and for nine months, the “inside” of Mary was the dwelling place of Jesus. Just as God dwelt with the people of Israel and manifested his presence and glory through the Ark of the Old Covenant, the Word took flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14) through the Blessed Virgin Mary who is the Ark of the New Covenant. It was said earlier in this reflection that the two tablets of stones containing the Ten Commandments were within the Ark of the Old Covenant. In other words, inside the Ark of the Old covenant, was the written Word of God (Deut 10:4-5), but inside the Ark of the New Covenant was the Word of God made flesh (Jn 1:1, 14), the same Jesus who “was clothed with a garment sprinkled with blood; and his name is called , the Word of God” (Rev. 19:13).

While the Ark of the Old Covenant contained Manna, bread from heaven (Heb 9:3-4), the Ark of the New Covenant bore the Jesus, the Bread of Life who came down from Heaven (Jn 6:31-42). Whereas the Ark of the Old Covenant also contained the rod of the High Priest of the Old Covenant, Aaron (Heb 9:4), Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant bore the Perfect and Eternal High Priest of the New Covenant (Heb 3:1; 4:14-15; 6:20; 9:11). In the Old Covenant, the Ark was “overshadowed” by the presence and power of God (Exod 40:34-35), but the Ark of the New Covenant was “overshadowed” by the presence and power of the Most High (Lk 1:35). The Hebrew verbal root shakhan used in the Old Testament to describe the glorious cloud of God’s visible presence (Shekinah), is equivalent to the Greek verbal root episkiazō which is rightly used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Greek of the New Testament uses the same verbal root episkiazō to describe the “overshadowing” of Mary by the presence and power of God (cf. episkiasei – Lk 1:35).

By way of location, both the Ark and Mary were in the hill country of Judah. The King, David and all the people went to Baale in Judah, to bring up the Ark of God, “from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill” (2 Sam 6:1-3). After the annunciation, Mary arose and went “into the hill country, to a town in Judah” (Lk 1:39). For those who have gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, it is not difficult to notice that both Abu Ghosh (where the old Ark resided) and Ein Kerem (where Elizabeth lived) are only a short walk apart. So both the Old Ark and Mary the New Ark made a journey to the same hill country of Judah.

Both King David who went with all the people to bring up the Ark from the hill country and Elizabeth whom Mary went to visit in the hill country made similar exclamations issued in the form of a question. In fear, David exclaimed: “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9); with great awe and excitement, Elizabeth exclaimed: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43). When King David leaped and danced joyfully before the Ark of the Old Covenant, he was dressed like a priest (2 Sam 6:14-16); John the Baptist who while still inside the womb leaped with joy before Mary the New Ark of the Covenant was from a priestly lineage (Lk 1:41, 44; cf. Lk 1:5).

In all the six times the Greek word anephōnēsen meaning “exclaim” is used in the Bible, it is only in reference to Mary and the Ark. Elizabeth anephōnēsen (exclaimed) with a loud shout (kraugē megalē) when she encountered Mary (Lk 1:42), just as David and the people of Israel did with shouts and the sound of the trumpet (2 Sam 6:15). While the Ark of the Old Covenant “remained in Obed-Edom for three months” (2 Sam 6:11), the New Ark of the Covenant “stayed with Elizabeth for three months” (Lk 1:56). The place that housed the Ark of the Lord for three months was blessed. And when we read Luke 1:41-45, we would notice that Elizabeth uses the word “blessed” (eulogēmenē in Greek) three times in that short paragraph. Significantly, conjugated forms of the Hebrew verb bērē, which is equivalent to the Greek eulogēmenē is also used three times by the narrator of the Ark episode in 2 Sam 6:11-18.

The last time the Old Ark of the Covenant was ever mentioned is in the second book of Maccabees. Shortly before the Babylonians attacked and burnt down the Jerusalem temple, Jeremiah had received a vision and oracle of the Lord immediately after which he took the Ark to the mountain where Moses encountered God. And there, he hid the Ark in a cave and sealed up its entrance (2 Macc 2:4-5). Responding to the discovery that some people had followed him to mark the place where the Ark was, even though they could not find it, Jeremiah said: “The place shall be unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. And then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.” (2 Macc 2:7-8).

And thus the Psalmist declares: Arise, O Lord, and go into your resting place, You and the Ark of your might” (Ps 132:8). Indeed, the Lord arose and went into his holy heavens (cf. Mk. 16:19; Acts 1:9-11). After centuries without seeing the Ark of the Old Covenant, its location was revealed to St. John. But now it is no longer the Ark of the Old Covenant, rather the New One: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the Ark of his Covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And a great sign appeared in heaven: a Woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 11:19-12:1). The “Woman” who is referred to in the text is “Mary”, the Mother of Jesus, for “She gave birth to a male child, who is to rule all the nations with an iron scepter”, and indeed “her child was carried up to God and to his throne” (Rev 12:5). By this chain of divine-planned events, we see how the declaration in Psalm 132:8 cited above is graciously fulfilled.

All through history, the Church has not failed to teach the truth based on Divine Revelation. Through her leaders, as well as the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, this fact the Mary is the Ark of the Covenant has been clearly proclaimed. Some of them wrote extensively about it, highlighting clearly the new and significant reality that emerges with New Ark of the Covenant. In the words of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373): “O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O Ark of the Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which Divinity resides.” (cf. Homily of the Papyrus of Turin). According to St. Ambrose of Milan (c.339-397), “The Prophet David danced before the Ark. And what shall we say is the Ark, but Holy Mary? The Ark bore within it the tables of the Testament. But Mary bore the Heir of the same Testament itself. The former contained in it the Law, the latter the Gospel. The one had the Voice of God, the other His Word. The Ark, indeed, was radiant within and without with the glitter of gold, but the Holy Mary shone within and without with the splendor of virginity. The one was adorned with earthly gold, the other with heavenly gold.” (cf. Sermon XLII. 6).

Of course, even to this day and forever, the Church by her authority and in her wisdom proclaims the abundant love of God for His people whom he chose to be close to in a special way. The Church teaches: “The prayer of the people of God flourished in the shadow of the dwelling place of God’s presence on earth, the ark of the covenant and the temple, under the guidance of their shepherds, especially King David, and of the prophets” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2594). And when the covenant was renewed and sealed with the Blood of Christ, God continues to be close to his people of the New Covenant in a special way. And so again the Church declares: “Mary, in whom the Lord Himself has just made His dwelling, is the Daughter of Zion in person, the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the Glory of the Lord dwells. She is ‘the dwelling of God with men’.” (Rev 21:3; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2676).