The Virgin Mary is a pivotal figure in the story of Christ Jesus. In many Christian circles she has been overlooked where more emphasis is put on the Apostles than onto her. That said, where do Catholics get their emphasis on Mary in the practice of Christianity?
Here is a quote from one of the early Church Fathers on the topic.
“Behold one in truth, the handmaid of the Lord. Holy she is, in whom is no guile, all simplicity….The spouse of Christ is the ark of the covenant, within and without overlaid with gold, a keeper of the law of the Lord. As in the ark there was nothing but the tables of the Testament, so too in thee no one from outside should be thought of. Over this propitiatory, as though upon the Cherubim, the Lord is pleased to sit….The Apostle thus defines a virgin, that she should be holy in body and in spirit.” – St. Jerome (c. 345-420) (Epist. Xxii., Ad Eustoch. Nn. 18, 19, 21, 24) (Blessed Virgin, p. 216).
Where does the notion that Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant come from? First, we must establish the relationship of Mary to the Ark of the Covenant as found in the Scriptures and in the writings of the Church Fathers. This relationship sheds light on the importance of the Blessed Mother and why she holds such a pivotal role in the Christian faith. Before we get to Mary and her significance, we must look back at the prefigurements of Mary in the Old Testament. There are many. But, one of particular interest to many is the Ark of the Covenant.
So, let’s start with the specific instructions God gave to Moses to build the Ark:
Exodus 25:10-22 – “They shall construct an ark of acacia wood two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high. “You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and you shall make a gold molding around it. “You shall cast four gold rings for it and fasten them on its four feet, and two rings shall be on one side of it and two rings on the other side of it. “You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. “You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark with them. “The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be removed from it. “You shall put into the ark the testimony which I shall give you.” “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide. “You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. “Make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat at its two ends. “The cherubim shall have their wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings and facing one another; the faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the mercy seat. “You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. “There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.”
The Ark, built with human hands, was to be treated with reverence according to God’s Word:
Exodus 26:33 – “You shall hang up the veil under the clasps, and shall bring in the ark of the testimony there within the veil; and the veil shall serve for you as a partition between the holy place and the holy of holies.” (Repeated in Exodus 40:3, Exodus 40:21)
Exodus 30:25-26 – “You shall make of these a holy anointing oil, a perfume mixture, the work of a perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. “With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony,”
Numbers 10:33 – “Thus they set out from the mount of the LORD three days’ journey, with the ark of the covenant of the LORD journeying in front of them for the three days, to seek out a resting place for them. The cloud of the LORD was over them by day when they set out from the camp. Then it came about when the ark set out that Moses said, “Rise up, O LORD! And let Your enemies be scattered, And let those who hate You flee before You.” When it came to rest, he said, “Return, O LORD, To the myriad thousands of Israel.”
Deuteronomy 10:8 – “At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to serve Him and to bless in His name until this day.”
Joshua 6:6 – “So Joshua son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant of the LORD and have seven priests carry trumpets in front of it.”
1 Kings 8:6-7 – “Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, into the inner sanctuary of the house, to the most holy place, under the wings of the cherubim. The cherubim spread their wings over the place of the ark and overshadowed the ark and its carrying poles.”
1 Chronicles 15:2 – “Then David said, “No one but the Levites may carry the ark of God, because the LORD chose them to carry the ark of the LORD and to minister before him forever.”
The LORD dwelt above the Ark with the Israelites while they remained faithful to Him. God would come to Moses and the priesthood by way of the Ark.
Exodus 30:6 – “And thou shalt put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee.”
Exodus 25:22 – “There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.”
Numbers 7:89 – “And when Moses was gone into the tabernacle of the congregation to speak with him, then he heard the voice of one speaking unto him from off the mercy seat that was upon the ark of testimony, from between the two cherubims: and he spake unto him.”
The Ark of the LORD was so precious that no man would even be allowed to display irreverence towards it or defile it. And, for those that did not treat the Ark with respect, God destroyed them:
1 Samuel 6:19 – “He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter.”
2 Samuel 6:6-7 – “But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset it. And the anger of the LORD burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God.”
The Ark was treasured by the Israelites. It would hold the following items:
- The Tables of the Law/Ten Commandments (Exodus 40:18; Deuteronomy 10:5)
- The Manna/Bread of Life (Exodus 16:34)
- The Rod of Aaron (Numbers 17:10)
Now, how does this all tie back to Mary? Where the Ark, a man-made object, would hold physical, non-living items holy to the Israelites. Mary, made by God, would hold the living, breathing Lawgiver, Lord, and Bread of Life.
When we look at the comparative verses of the Bible in this light, we can see the line that the New Testament authors began to connect for us to emphasize the connection between the man-made Ark and the God-made Mary.
– The Lord would overshadow both Mary and the ark:
Exodus 40:34-35 – “The cloud covered the tabernacle of the testimony, and the glory of the Lord filled it. Neither could Moses go into the tabernacle of the covenant, the cloud covering all things and the majesty of the Lord shining, for the cloud had covered all.”
1 Kings 8:10-11 – “And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, So that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of the LORD.”
Luke 1:35 – “And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” (reiterated in Hebrews 9:5)
– God dwelt with the Ark, just as Jesus would dwell with Mary:
1 Chronicles 17:5 – “for I have not dwelt in a house since the day that I brought up Israel to this day, but I have gone from tent to tent and from one dwelling place to another.”
– God in the Flesh, the Son, Christ Jesus, would come to us by way of the new Ark: Mary.
Revelation 21:3 – “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
– Another important comparison is in the verses of the Old Testament in 2 Samuel 6 (Ark) and the New Testament in Luke 1 (Mary). The two books have a series of verses that are written in similar manners worthy of note:
1) Here, note the similar trip taken by the Mary and the ark into Juda:
2 Samuel 6:2 – “And David arose and went, with all the people that were with him of the men of Juda to fetch the ark of God, upon which the name of the Lord of Hosts is invoked, who sitteth over it upon the cherubims.”
Luke 1:39 – “And Mary rising up in those days, went into the hill country with haste into a city of Juda.”
2) Here, note the same surprise of those receiving Mary and the ark:
2 Samuel 6:9 – “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?”
Luke 1:43 – “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
3) Both Mary and the ark on similar journeys:
2 Samuel 6:10 – “So David would not remove the ark of the LORD unto him into the city of David: but David carried it aside into the house of Obededom the Gittite.”
Luke 1:40 – “And [Mary] entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elizabeth.”
4) Note the same duration of dwelling in Juda by Mary and the ark:
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.”
Luke 1:56 – “And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.”
5) Note the excitement of David and John the Baptist in the presence of the ark and Mary respectively:
2 Samuel 6:14-16 – “And David danced before the Lord with all his might. And David was wearing 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 trumpet. And as the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal Saul’s daughter looked through a window, and saw king David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.”
Luke 1:41-42 – “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
– And lastly, Mary would stand in the presence of the holy sacrifice at Calvary (John 19:25), just as the ark was to be in the place of the sacrifices which prefigured the ultimate sacrifice of Christ Jesus for the redemption of us all:
2 Samuel 15:24 – “Zadok was there, too, and all the Levites who were with him were carrying the ark of the covenant of God. They set down the ark of God, and Abiathar offered sacrifices until all the people had finished leaving the city.”
These Scriptural affiliations are not new or recently discovered by anyone in the Church. The traditions of the Church and understanding of the Scriptures go all the way back to AT LEAST the 2nd Century AD, almost 1900 years. The tradition of Mary as the New Ark generated enough discussion that the Church Fathers wrote about this relationship:
“At that time, the Savior coming from the Virgin, the Ark, brought forth His own Body into the world from that Ark, which was gilded with pure gold within by the Word, and without by the Holy Ghost” – St. Hippolytus (c. 170 AD – c. 236 AD)
“The ark is verily the holy Virgin, gilded within and without, who received the treasure of universal sanctification.” – St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213 AD – c. 270 AD)
“Be mindful of us, most holy virgin, who after childbirth didst remain virgin; and grant to us for these small words great gifts from the riches of thy graces, O thou full of grace. Accept them as though they were true and adequate praises in thy honor; and if there is in them any virtue and any praise, we offer them as a hymn from ourselves and from all creatures to thee, full of grace, Lady, Queen, Mistress, Mother of God, and Ark of sanctification” – St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373) (Orat. In Deip. Annuntiat, nn.13, 14. Int. Opp. S. Athanasii) (Blessed Virgin, p. 80).
“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.” – St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373) Homily of the Papyrus of Turin.
“The Ark would be the type and image of Christ: for if we look back to the way of the Incarnation of the Only-begotten, we shall see that it is in the temple of the Virgin, as in an ark that the Word of God took up His abode. For in Him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, as the Scripture saith. But the testimonies in the ark were the word of God, and the wood of it was imperishable, and with pure and choicest gold was it beautified within and without” – St. Cyril of Alexandria (315-c.387) (De ador. In Spir. Et Verit, p. 293, St. Maximus of Turin and other Fathers apply the Ark of the Covenant to the Blessed Virgin Mary)(Blessed Virgin, p. 76).
“The prophet David danced before the Ark. Now what else should we say the Ark was 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 holy Mary shone within and without with the splendor of virginity. The one was adorned with earthly gold, the other with heavenly” – St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) (Serm. xlii. 6, Int. Opp., S. Ambrosii) (Blessed Virgin, p. 77).
As we can now see, Mary is not only integral to the life, death, & resurrection of her Son Christ Jesus; but, she is also a key to our relationship with Christ Jesus as well as the vessel by which Jesus comes to all of us. Mary is the new Ark of the new Covenant. She is more blessed than the ark; and she lives today. She was to be loved, respected, and revered among men. And she was given to us by Christ Jesus Himself to be our blessed mother for all time (John 19:26-27). And, if God would strike down those who did not fulfill His commandments pertaining to the handling of the physical, non-living, prefigurement of Mary, how much do we believe that He protects His mother from disrespect or harm? Mary is the most amazing being in all creation and unlike the ark made with human hands, she was made by God’s hands. In this, we should now be able to agree: Mary is truly breathtaking.
May God bless you all!
We’d like to provide a special Thank You to the folks over at Infallible Catholic for the work they did that contributed to this article: http://infallible-catholic.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-blessed-virgin-mary-new-ark-of.html
Stay tuned for more Christian educational articles when we look at Mary in a different light with Mary as the Queen of Heaven!