Mary, the New Ark of the New Covenant
“I heard a great voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.'”
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373) was one of the early Church Fathers influential in shaping the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (Nicene Creed for short), particularly concerning the consubstantial (homoousios in Greek) nature of the One and Triune God. The Nicene Creed as a profession of faith is common to all Christians of both the East and West. It is the summary of what we believe as Christians. Saint Athanasius had this to say about the Blessed Virgin Mary:
“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?. . . . .O [Ark of the New] 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. . . . .You carry within you the feet, the head, and the entire body of the perfect God. . . . .you are God’s place of repose.” (Quoted as found in Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, p. 65, by Brant Pitre,)
While St. Athanasius’ work on the Nicene Creed remains one of the great unifying beliefs amongst a divided church, I imagine his statement on Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant is a bit more divisive amongst Christian traditions. This post will explore the deep Biblical foundation for the Mary as the New Ark of the New Covenant by employing Biblical typology. My hope is that your knowledge of the Mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation will be deepened, but also to demonstrate the Catholic Church’s insistence of Mary’s seat of honor in salvation history is rooted in scripture.
The Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament
The Ark of the Covenant was the place of God’s presence for the Hebrew people from Moses to the time of the prophets and Babylonian exile, at which point it disappeared and was lost to history. God gave Moses instructions in Exodus 25:10-20 on each detail of the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. In Exodus 37:1-9, the craftsman Bezalel of the Tribe of Judah constructed the Ark of the Covenant exactly commanded by God to Moses. When completed, the Ark was placed in the Tabernacle and the Glory Cloud, signifying God’s presence on earth, covered the Tabernacle with the Ark inside (Exodus 40:21,34-38).
The Ark contained “The Covenant” which the Lord would give to Moses (Exodus 25:15-16). The Ten Commandments Moses received were placed inside the Ark, along with manna the Israelites received in the desert (Exodus 16:34), and the priestly staff of Aaron (Numbers 17:10, Hebrews 9:4).
The Ark of the Covenant was a sign of God’s presence to His chosen people, and a place where God spoke to His people to give them instruction. When God commanded the Ark to go before Israel, victory and miracles occurred (See Joshua 3:7-14; Joshua 6:1-21). However, Sacred Scripture records one instance when Israel tried to use the Ark for victory on its own initiative without God’s command. This attempt ended in disaster — 30,000 soldiers were killed and the Ark was captured by the Philistines for seven months (1 Samuel 4-7).
King David was particularly devoted to the Ark of the Covenant, and renewed Israel’s devotion to it after they had neglected its prime place in their communication with the Lord (1 Chronicles 13). Soon after, David brought the Ark to Jerusalem in a procession of praise, dancing and sacrifice (2 Samuel 6; 1 Chronicles 15).
Mary, the New Ark of the Covenant
This brief history of the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament is important to fully understand Jesus’ Incarnation and Mary’s place as the New Ark of the the New Covenant. To properly understand how this could be, it is important to remember that the Old Testament prefigures the New Testament, and what God reveals in the New Testament completes, fulfills, and perfects what He began in the Old Testament.
There is actually one place in the New Testament where the Ark is present. We read in the Book of Revelation:
“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. . . . .And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God” (Revelation 11:19-12:1,5-6).
Here, the Ark was seen in God’s temple in heaven, yet it is not described as the Old Testament Ark is known to have looked. Rather, a woman is described as clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. We have already explored Mary as the New Eve in detail. What is important for this reflection is that the Ark is also aligned with the image of the woman.
The association of the Ark of the Covenant with the woman points us to the largest and perhaps most important parallel between the Virgin Mary and the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant was the place of God’s presence on earth. Jesus Christ, truly and fully God, assumed our humanity and walked the earth in history. He lived a human life with human relationships, performed everyday, human tasks, and died as all human persons do. Jesus received his human nature solely from the Blessed Virgin Mary, and dwelt within her womb for nine months.
More specifically, the Ark of the Covenant contained the Ten Commandments, manna from the desert, and Aarons priestly Rod. Jesus is the the Word of God, the Bread of Life come down from heaven, and the true high priest who fulfills and completes the reality began with these symbols given to Moses. In short, what the material symbols the Ark of the Covenant contained all point to the person of Jesus, the Son of God.
But doesn’t this mean that it is Jesus who should be the New Ark and not Mary, since he completes what was prefigured in these Old Testament symbols? This is where it is important to look to key New Testament passages for further insight.
One of the key parallels for Mary as the New Ark is found in the words of the Angel Gabriel when he came to Mary to announce the coming of Jesus.
Mary, when presented with the possibility of conceiving the child Jesus, questions how such a thing could be. Gabriel’s response is important.
“The angel said to her, ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible'” (Luke 1:34-37).
When the presence of the Lord came upon the meeting tent, the same language is used that angel employs here. Moses was unable to enter the tabernacle because the glory of the Lord filled and overshadowed it. Mary conceives Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit overshadowing her.
Brant Pitre in his book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary points out that the same Greek word, episkiazō, is used in Luke’s Gospel and the Greek Translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. The Septuagint was translated from Hebrew into Greek very near to the time of Jesus, and indicates how the first-century Church would have understood these Old Testament passages in light of the Gospel events.
The other key detail to note about the Annunciation is who Jesus is proclaimed to be in reference to the design of the Ark given to Moses. First, Gabriel is an Angel, of which there were two upon the Ark facing one another and flanking the mercy seat.
Secondly, Jesus will occupy the throne of David forever. In 2 Samuel 7, King David desires to build a house for the Lord so that the presence of the Lord would no longer be subjected to a mere tent. In response, the Prophet Nathan said to David:
“The LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my merciful love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever” (2 Samuel 7:11–16).
The Angel Gabriel announces the fulfillment of Nathan’s prophecy when he proclaims that Jesus, “Will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
Concerning the name of Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel adds, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The Hebrew variation for Jesus is Joshua, which means “Yahweh is Salvation.”
The mercy seat depicted upon the Old Testament Ark symbolized both the kingly authority of God directed toward the salvation of sinners through His never-ending mercy. What was merely promised to Moses, David and all of Israel in the Old Testament becomes fulfilled at the Annunciation when Mary consented to become the bearer of the incarnate presence God on earth!
Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth
Immediately following the Annunciation by Gabriel is the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. Mary consented through her fiat to conceive and bear the Christ. From the very moment of her “yes”, the incarnate presence of God dwelt on earth. Yet, this presence was hidden — veiled within the womb of Mary. Mary is often depicted in art wearing the color blue. Anytime the Ark of the Covenant was transported in the Old Testament, it was likewise to be veiled in a cloth of blue (Numbers 4:5-6).
The dialogue and actions between Mary, Elizabeth, and the children within their wombs are no mere trivialities, but have deep roots in the Ark of the Old Testament when King David brings the Ark into Jerusalem. The below table summarizes the important verses:
|David Brings the Ark to Jerusalem||Mary Visits Elizabeth|
|2 Samuel 6:2|
David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah.
|2 Samuel 6:9|
David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?”
And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
|2 Samuel 6:12-15|
David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was belted with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the horn.
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the child leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
|2 Samuel 6:11|
And the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.
And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home.
The near exact parallels between the two passages are stunning! Taken together with the parallels between the Annunciation and description of the Old Testament Ark, it becomes even clearer the role of Mary as the New Ark of the New Covenant.
Further, every six paces David walked while processing the Ark into Jerusalem, a sacrifice was offered. David (and all religious sacrifice prior to Jesus) had to grasp at offering a complete, true and sustained sacrifice through large quantities of oxen and fatlings. Mary carried within her the true sacrificial offering — Jesus Christ — who at the cross made a complete and perpetual sacrifice that paid the debt of all of sin throughout all of history. David’s sacrifice had a forward, linear dimension to it through time. Jesus’ sacrifice came from eternity and returned to eternity, never again needing to be repeated.
One final question remains after considering the significant typological references between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant — the question of why? This is a mystery that must be contemplated and explored as we pray through scripture, asking God to lead each of us in our own lives toward His holy will and our shared destiny as His sons and daughters.
The mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation is infinitely deep and vast. The Rosary is the ideal tool to aid in journeying through this mystery in order to arrive at a greater union with God in His Son Jesus Christ!