Biblical Mary: The Ark of the New Covenant
The other day I wrote about the trials of trying to be an “Ecumenical Apologist“, so today I would like to write a post about something rather controversial, or rather someone rather controversial – Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Mary is something of a source of contention between Catholics and non-Catholics. At best, Catholics are told that the attention they give to Mary draws glory away from God. At worst, Catholics are charged with unbiblical doctrine, necromancy and idolatry.
In this post I will not attempt to try and convince any non-Catholics of the veracity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, her Assumption or any of the other particularly Catholic Marian doctrines. I would simply like to show you a scriptural perspective on Mary of which you may be unaware. My aim is that after reading this post you would be awed at the cohesiveness of God’s master plan and declare that Mary truly is “blessed” (Lk 1:48-49)
I came across this particular biblical perspective of Mary at a time in my life when I wasn’t at all a fan of the Catholic Church. At that time I denied all the particularly Catholic doctrines about Mary (Immaculate Conception, Ever Virgin etc). I flattered myself that I knew my Bible pretty well and knew all the passages which referred to her – it wasn’t hard as there weren’t many of them, or so I thought.
However, when I heard the explanation of Scripture which I am about to present, I was stunned! I was excited, definitely, because it was an amazing insight, but I was also stunned. Here was an understanding of Mary I could never recall having heard before and yet it had been under my nose the entire time, in the pages of my Bible. Maeve, the missionary who brought my faith to life in my early twenties often spoke of “the hidden treasures of the Church” and I was never completely sure of what she meant, until I tripped over one of them…
I was humbled when I realized my arrogance in thinking that a 2,000 year-old Church wouldn’t have anything to teach me. All those saints in its history had a few insights I might have missed? Shocking!
The Catholic Church declares that Mary is the “Ark of the New Covenant” and it is this title that I would like to examine in this post. But before we can look at how Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant, we must first look at the Ark of the Old Covenant…
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Ark of the Covenant is an item referred to in the Old Testament. Whilst on Mount Sinai God tells Moses how to build the Ark:
“Have them make a chest of acacia wood…overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out…Cast four gold rings for it…Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it…
…And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover…The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them” – Exodus 25:10-20
So from this description we see that the Ark is a container covered from head-to-toe in gold, with golden statues of two angels placed on top:
The fact that the entire Ark was covered in gold demonstrated that this was something extremely holy, set apart for a sacred purpose. The Ark would travel with the Israelites throughout the desert, be the focus of the Israelite worship to God, was a spiritual weapon in battle (Joshua 6) and eventually find its resting place in the Temple of Jerusalem built by Solomon, in the Holy of Holies.
Vessel of Blessing
But what did the Ark actually contain? We are told in the letter to the Hebrews:
“Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover.” – Hebrews 9:3-5
So we see that the Ark contained three things:
1. The Word Of God: The tablets of stone containing the commandments given by God to Moses which Moses smashed following the Israelite idolatry of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-19)
2. The High Priest’s Staff: This was the staff which belonged to Aaron that symbolized his priestly office (Numbers 17:1-18:7)
3. The Bread of Heaven: Some of the manna which God used to feed the Israelites (Exodus 16)
We now leave the Old Testament and ask: “What was contained within Mary’s womb?” The short answer, of course is simply “Jesus”, she is, after all, the Theotokos, the “God Bearer”. But who exactly is Jesus?
1. The Word Of God: Jesus himself is the incarnate Word of God, the “logos” described in the beginning of John’s Gospel (John 1:1)
2. High Priest: As the author of the letter to the Hebrews says, Jesus is our “great High Priest” who has offered that one, perfect sacrifice – Himself on the cross (Hebrews 4:14)
3. The Bread of Heaven: In John’s Gospel Jesus says again and again that He is the bread that “comes down from heaven” (John 6:51)
I remember being dumbstruck when I first had these parallels pointed out to me. Mary is the new Ark! This started to shed some light for me on the place Catholics give Mary – Mary is holy in the same way the Ark was holy and Mary should be given similar honour for the sacred purpose for which she was set apart.
As I started to dig a bit more I started to find yet more parallels…
The Very Presence of God
At the Annunciation, Gabriel tells Mary that God will “overshadow” (episkiazo) her and she will bear a child:
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” – Luke 1:35
The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Old Testament made two centuries earlier, and with which Luke would have been very familiar. This same word for “overshadow” is used in the Septuagint to refer to another event involving the Ark:
Then the cloud [overshadowed] the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle – Exodus 40:34-35
Luke’s Gospel is certainly one of the Gospel accounts which mentions Mary more often. However, I was shocked when I saw that Luke had cheated! If you place side-by-side the story of “The Visitation” in Luke 1:26-56 and the story of the Ark in 2 Samuel 5-6 you will notice some rather striking similarities:
- Both David and Mary “arose and went” (2 Samuel 6:2 and Luke 1:39)
- Mary (Luke 1:39) and the Ark (2 Samuel 6:1) were both to be found in the same hill country of Judea
- When David saw the Ark he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9) and Elizabeth says “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43)
- David approached the Ark with shouts, dancing and leaping, wearing a priestly ephod (2 Samuel 6:12-15). When Elizabeth met Mary, her son John the Baptist, who would have been from the priestly line of Aaron, leaped for joy in her womb (Luke 1:41-44)
- The Ark remained in the house of “Obed-edom“ for three months (2 Samuel 6:11). Mary remained in the house of Elizabeth for the same duration (Luke 1:56)
- The Ark returned to Jerusalem where God’s presence and glory was revealed in the temple (2 Chronicles 7:1). Mary returns home and then ends up in Jerusalem, where she presents God incarnate in the temple (Luke 2:22-24)
Indy got it wrong!
If you have ever seen the film “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” you will know the story of everyone’s favourite wise-cracking archeologist in his attempts to find the Ark of the Covenant, whilst at the same time winning back the heart of an ex-girlfriend and punching Nazis in the face…
In the film Indiana Jones is looking for the lost Ark of the Covenant. But who lost it?! In 2nd Maccabees we are told that in c. 587 BC Jeremiah hides the Ark to save it from the invading Babylonian army:
One finds in the records that the prophet Jeremiah…instructed those who were being deported not to forget the commandments of the Lord…
It was also in the same document that the prophet, having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: ‘The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the [shekinah] cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.’ – 2 Maccabees 2:1-8
Jeremiah’s hiding place was never found and when the temple was rebuilt years later, the Holy of Holies remained empty – barren.
A great treasure always attracts a great number of treasure hunters and the Ark of the Covenant is no exception. But I have a secret – I know where the Ark is…
The Ark Unveiled
To discover the final resting place of the Ark, don your Indiana Jones hat and bull-whip and follow me to the final book of the Bible, The Book of Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse (apokalypsis, literally “unveiling”):
“The seventh angel sounded his trumpet…Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.” – Revelation 11:15, 19-12:2
This is where the Ark is – she is in heaven! She is announced in spectacular style and to the sound of the 7th trumpet just like at Jericho (Joshua 6:13).
But is this woman Mary?
John’s vision is an oftentimes confusing piece of literature with multiple layers and meanings, but it is clear from the description which follows that this woman is Mary:
“She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.” – Revelation 12:5
Who is this male child who will rule the nations with an iron scepter and who is in heaven? This is clearly Jesus – He is referred to explicitly using the same description in Revelation 19:11-16. Also, Psalm 2:9 said that the Messiah would “rule all the nations with a rod of iron”. So, although she may also represent other things (such as the Church or Israel), it’s fairly safe to assume that the women giving birth to Him is the one who actually gave birth to Him – His mother, Mary.
If you looked in a physical Bible today, you could be forgiven for not realizing that that the woman is the Ark. This is because the passage I quoted above is actually split across two chapters:
“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant…
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun…”
However, it must be remembered that chapter divisions are somewhat arbitrary and were only introduced in the Middle Ages (12th Century) – the original Greek texts contain no such divisions.
I’ll look at this passage in Revelation in more detail in another post when I discuss another of Mary’s titles: “The New Eve”.
Although my original study of this Marian dimension of the Ark didn’t bring me all the way to the Catholic understanding of Mary, it did show me an understanding of Mary to which I had hitherto been completely ignorant. Apparently this 2,000 year old Church did have something to teach me!
“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” – Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373 AD) , Homily of the Papyrus of Turin
I hope that in this post you have been amazed at the way Mary is pre-figured in the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant and how truly blessed she was to hold within her flesh the Word of God, our High Priest and the very Bread of Heaven. Today we have an opportunity to give glory to God by declaring the work of His grace and the blessedness of His chosen Ark:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is His name!” – Luke 1:46-49