Mary as Ark of the Covenant

By Ed de Vera

Is Mary Ark of the Covenant?

Catholics honour Mother Mary with one hundred and fifty titles in the Litany of Loreto. Other than these are numerous venerable titles accorded her that the faithful accept as a given. Most of our Separated Brethren in the Protestant world however find the ascribing superfluous and consider these accolades as preposterous if not downright blasphemous. An Evangelical Pastor once asked cynically how Catholics could possibly call Mary the “Ark of the Covenant” in the litany when the Ark is an Old Testament reality whereas Mary is from the New Testament.

One must first understand that all the Fathers of the Reformation – Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin – remained devotees of Mary even after breaking away from Rome. Over the course of a few years following their lifetime the succeeding generations of Reformers jettisoned the Marian dimension from Protestant Christianity. Five hundred years hence, we find Christians not only ignorant of the Biblical basis for Marian devotion but inimical towards it as well.

The form of supplication known as a litany antedates the birth of Protestantism in the Reformation of the 16th century. The Litany of the Saints in wide use around the 7th century was the inspiration for a series of supplications devoted solely to the Blessed Mother that is popularly known as the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. Initially formed in the 9th century from the influence of the Akathist Hymn in the Eastern Church, it developed between the years 1150-1200 and became a prayer norm at the Shrine of Loreto in the 1500s, which gave rise to the appellation Litany of Loreto. In 1587 Pope Sixtus V officially approved the litany for universal usage.

Catholics view the entire Sacred Scriptures as one single fabric; Old Testament verses find meaning and purpose against the panorama of Salvation History. Jesus Christ himself said, “I did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” And the Early Church Fathers realized in their study of that fulfilment that just as Old Testament types prefigured Christ, so too were types that pointed to people and events associated with his salvific mission. This typological principle at interpreting the Bible led Augustine to conclude: “The Old Testament is revealed in the New and the New Testament is concealed in the Old.”

All honours accorded to the Blessed Mother that Protestants find offensive are actually Christo-centric and Scripture-based. These ensue from her singular privilege as being the Mother of the Eternal Word. Without Jesus, Mary would just have been another woman, but the fact that she bore the Redeemer makes her no ordinary woman. The Church Fathers recognised several Old Testament types prefiguring Mary: Sarah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Jael, Judith, Esther and the Ark of the Covenant – this last one, we can best appreciate in the Jewish roots of the Faith.

The Old Testament people of God venerated the Ark of the Covenant, a box of acacia wood adorned with winged cherubim and gilded with gold trimmings, which Moses fashioned upon God’s command. Why would the Israelites venerate a fancy gilded box crafted by human hands? Would that not be a violation of the First Commandment? Not so; what made the Ark of the Covenant an object of veneration were its contents: God’s Word inscribed in stone tablets, a dish of manna and the staff of the high priest, Aaron. These made the box divinely sanctified and an object of veneration. Scripture attests that God’s holy presence, the Shekinah, hovered over the Ark like a cloud day and night (Exo 40:31-34) as protector of Israel. The Ark was kept in a makeshift tabernacle-tent during their forty-year journey in the desert, led the People of God across to the Promised Land as the waters of the Jordan parted before it for their crossing, and won victories for them in the conquest of Canaan. They were invincible in all their battles with the Ark borne aloft by priests at the frontlines of every encounter.

As time passed the Chosen People repeatedly lapsed into infidelity to their Covenant with God. His holy presence that had been their protection–overshadowing the Tent of meeting in their desert sojourn and the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem–was disregarded by the people which brought on dire consequence of defeat, domination, and exile.

In 587 BC the Babylonians marched on to Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah took the Ark that was reposed in the Holy of Holies and hid it in a secure place before the Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians and brought it to a place...

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 be consecrated (2 Macc 2:5-8).

The temple was rebuilt on the return of the Jews from exile but there was no Ark in the Holy of Holies. It had been missing for six hundred years following the fall and exile. Missing until the proper time for disclosure of God’s mercy. Then came the day when Archangel Gabriel was sent to a lovely young maiden at Nazareth and the Divine Presence that had hovered over the Ark of the Covenant now overshadowed her.

Hail full of grace...

No mortal was ever greeted by an Archangel in such a manner (Lk 1:35); incontrovertible proof from the Scriptures of Mary’s purity. And whereas the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant was simply an elaborate holy crate, the New Testament Ark that it had prefigured was the Immaculate Virgin Mother from whom Jesus, the Eternal Word, Eucharistic Manna, and Eternal High Priest took on flesh. The Word through whom all things were made as attested in John’s Gospel and professed in the Nicene Creed, created His Mother free from imperfection and stain of sin. Her womb the holiest place on earth to form His humanity, the first tabernacle, preserved virginally pure and undefiled – nobody desecrated the Ark of the Lord.

Elizabeth’s exultation – “Why is this granted me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy” (Lk 1:43-44) – is reminiscent of David’s “How can the ark of my Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9; 14-16). His joyous leaping dance is replicated by John at the Visitation. Both David and Elizabeth had uttered Lord (adonai) a Hebrew title for God. And as the Ark of the Covenant stayed three months in the hill country of Judah (2 Sam 6:11) so did Mary stay in the hill country of Ain-Karem (Lk 1:56).

Through, with, and in Christ, the entire Old Testament is fulfilled. Mary, his Immaculate Mother is the true Ark of the Covenant. John in his vision of the heavenly liturgy while on exile at the Isle of Patmos first sees the Ark of the Covenant that had been missing since the Babylonian captivity and immediately thereafter a Woman wearing a crown of twelve stars appears (Rev 11:19-12:1). The Church Fathers identity this Woman as the Womanin Gen 3:15, the same Woman at Cana and at the foot of the Cross. Twelve stars represent the Apostles gathered around her in the upper room at Pentecost metaphoric of the Twelve Tribes encamped around the Ark of the Covenant.

Christians would do well to be devoted to Mary, remembering that as the Old Testament People of God were invincible against all their foes with the Ark of the Covenant leading the way in battle, all the more will they be victorious in the daily spiritual warfare against the forces of Hell with Mary showing the way.

“Ark of the Covenant, pray for us.”

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