Saturday, February 2, 2013

Mary - the Ark of the Covenant

From the earliest times, the Church has believed and taught that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the fulfilment of the Ark of the Covenant. For example:

“...the Saviour appeared and showed His own body to the world, born of the Virgin, who was the Ark overlaid with pure gold, with the Word within and the Holy Spirit without; so that the truth is demonstrated, and the Ark made manifest.” – St. Hippolytus (d. 236AD), Second Fragment on Daniel, Chapter 6
“Arise, O Lord, into Your rest; You, and the Ark of Your Sanctuary. For the Holy Virgin is in truth the Ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the Sanctuary.” – St Gregory Thaumaturgus (d. 275AD), Homily On the Annunciation

There are many more quotes available here, for any who are interested in digging deeper.

Well, as Catholics, it seems pretty obvious to us that Mary is the New Ark. The Ark was made of the purest gold – fulfilled in Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Mary bore within her womb the Lord Jesus Christ; and the Ark of the Covenant bore within it three things, which are fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ:

1)    The Rod of Aaron – Jesus the Eternal High Priest

2)    The Ten Commandments – Jesus the Great Prophet and Giver of the Law

3)    The Manna – Jesus the Bread of Life which comes from heaven

For Catholics, the idea that Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant is simply a logical conclusion. But is there more to it? What about Sacred Scripture – does the Bible back up what we claim? After all, whilst we don’t hold to the notion of Sola Scriptura, we do believe that what the Holy Catholic Church teaches will never contradict Sacred Scripture.
So what does Scripture have to say on this subject then? We know that the New Testament clearly points to the Lord Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of many Old Testament types e.g. the New Adam (1 Cor 15:45), the Eternal High Priest (Heb 6:20), the New Temple (Jn 2:19-21), the New Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7), etc. But Mary, the New Ark of the Covenant? Did the Church Fathers simply dream this up? Where did they get such an idea? The New Testament never specifically says that Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant…or does it?
In his Apocalypse, St. John tells us that he saw the Temple of God open up in heaven, and he beheld the Ark of the Covenant (Rev 11:19). Then he goes on to elaborate on what he saw…he saw a great sign in heaven, a Woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head (Rev 12:1). Because of the chapter and verse divisions in our modern Bibles, we often miss the connection that St. John is making here. But, St. John didn’t write the Book of Revelation with chapter and verse divisions in mind. So, when he tells us about the Woman, he is developing what he saw in respect of the Ark of the Covenant.
So who is this Woman? Well, the Book of Revelation is a multi-layered prophecy with the images portrayed by St. John as being able to refer to various things all at the same time (e.g. the seven-headed dragon refers to seven mountains as well as seven kings, according to Rev 17:9). In a similar way, the image of the Woman is able to refer to multiple things (including Israel and the Church). But one thing that the image of the Woman undoubtedly refers to is the Blessed Virgin Mary. After all, if child referred to in Rev 12:4-5 is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, then it stands to reason that the Woman who gives birth to Him is none other than the Blessed Virgin Mary. So, St. John was telling us that Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant.

But that’s not the only reference we have. In St. Luke’s Gospel, when speaking about the visitation of the Blessed Virgin to St. Elisabeth (Lk 1:39-45), he subtly makes use an episode in Israel’s history for his backdrop. The parallel event that St. Luke draws upon is the relocating of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (see 2 Sam 6:1-16). There is so much overlap between these two passages that it is impossible to deny that St. Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wanted us to see Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant. For example, here are just a few brief parallels to consider:

  • Mary arose and went into the hill country of Judea (Lk 1:39); David and his men go up into the same region (2 Sam 6:2)
  • The baby leaped in Elisabeth’s womb (Lk 1:41); David leaped with dancing (2 Sam 6:16)
  • Elisabeth’s exultation at Mary’s arrival (Lk 1:42); the people’s exultation at the Ark’s arrival (1 Chron 15:28)
  • Elisabeth asks: “How could it be that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Lk 1:43); David asks: “How could the Ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9)
  • Mary remains in the house of Elisabeth for three months (Lk 1:56); The Ark remained in the house of Obededom for three months (2 Sam 6:11)
[I should add that 1 Sam 6:6-8 mentions Uzzah putting forth his hand to touch the Ark, which was forbidden. In like manner, the Blessed Virgin was “untouched” by any man.]

These passages from St. John’s Apocalypse and St. Lukes Gospel show clearly that the early Church’s belief that Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant has a solid Scriptural foundation; and these passages often form the basic Catholic apologetic to Protestants who think otherwise.

But earlier this week, as I started reading Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth - the Infancy Narratives”, I learned that there is even more in St. Luke’s account that points to Our Lady as the New Testament fulfilment of the Ark of the Covenant.  In fact, it is the first thing that St. Luke does to introduce us to the Blessed Virgin Mary – almost as if that was a fundamental point that he was trying to get across.
St. Luke introduces Mary to us in the words of Gabriel: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with thee!” (Lk 1:28). These words are uttered by the Lord God, through the words of His messenger Gabriel, in fulfilment of the prophecy in Zeph 3:14-17:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has cast out your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear evil no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Do not fear, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

The Greek word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament that St. Luke would have been familiar with) for “Sing aloud!” in Zeph 3:14 is the word “chairo!”. It means to “be full of cheer” or to “rejoice”. Why must the daughter of Zion rejoice? Zeph 3:17 tells us – because the Lord is in her midst. The Hebrew word for “in the midst of” is “qereb” and literally translated, it means “in the womb”. And it is the same word (“qereb”) that is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to describe how God dwells with His people in....(guess what???)...the Ark of the Covenant! So, Zephaniah prophesies for the daughter of Zion to rejoice because God will dwell within her womb.
Now, you’ll never guess what word St. Luke uses for Gabriel’s “Hail!” in his greeting of the Blessed Virgin? You got it! It is “chairo!”.  And why must Mary rejoice? Because she – the handmaid of the Lord – has God with her, in her midst, in her womb.

[Noting this, we also see that the Blessed Virgin becomes the fulfilment of the “daughter of Zion” – which has implications that point us back to the Woman in Rev 12:1.]
Note also that in Zeph 3:16, the prophet says to the people: “Fear not” (Zeph 3:16); and so too does Gabriel to Mary (Lk 1:30).

I just need to raise one more point needs to be made that would no doubt have been at the forefront of St. Luke’s mind as he was penning this narrative...
St. Luke knew that the Presence of God came to dwell in the midst (or in the womb) of His people by the cloud covering (or overshadowing) the Tabernacle / Temple (e.g. Ex 40:34; 2 Chron 5:13). And that is exactly how God came to dwell in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary i.e. by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:35).

Now, this is all just merely scratching the surface regarding the Scriptural basis for Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. At the very least what it shows is that the Church Fathers, in teaching that Mary was the Ark of God, were simply being faithful in preserving and developing true Apostolic doctrine, handed down through the teaching of the Church. And this same doctrine has also been preserved for us within Sacred Scripture – if only we are prepared to go looking...

As the Ark of the Covenant brought peace to God’s people because it was the sign that God was in their midst; so too may the presence of Our Lady in your life bring peace to your soul...because she is always with the Lord, who is the Great Prince of Peace!


  1. Oh my gosh, Justin - you're on New Advent!

    May this post be a blessing to all who read it!

  2. Great article, thank you!

  3. Excellent post, Mr. Geldart. (I got here from New Advent, by the way.) Thanks for the reference from the Holy Father's new book.
    One correction, though. You link to Rev. 13 three times, when it is in chapter 12 twelve that Our Lady (and the Child,) is described by Saint John. Some anti-Catholics could have fun with those verses, you know what I mean? Ha-ha!
    God Bless!

  4. Thanks for the heads-up Nick from Detroit...duly corrected...

    You know what else is funny? I realised my mistake when I was drafting the blog, and completely forgot to fix it before posting it...oops... :) :) :)

  5. Here's my favorite icon for Mary as the Ark of the Covenant:

    1. Yeah - that's a pretty special one...the burning bush that wasn't consumed...

  6. No problem, Mr. Geldart. (I knew it was a typo.)
    I forgot to mention that your blog is now in my favorites. I'm looking forward to reading all the past posts.
    Take care.