The Ark of the Covenant

Edgardo C. de Vera

When the Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. the magnificent temple that Solomon built was destroyed and the city of Jerusalem razed to the ground. King Nebuchadnezzar had most all the Jews hauled to Babylon where they stayed in exile until the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians in 539 B.C., and the victorious King Cyrus allowed them to return home to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.

Ezekiel had prophesied about a new temple during the exile (Ez 40-43). The returning Jews, exuberant with hope, immediately went about the task of rebuilding the temple in 537 B.C., completing the work in 515. The older generation that had memories of Solomon’s majestic Temple was saddened by the new one’s lack of grandeur. Five centuries hence, Herod the Great – to ingratiate himself with the Jews – sought to remedy this flaw in his grandiose renovation. Work began in 20 B.C. and was still ongoing by the time of Christ. Despite all the gilded embellishments and glitter the renovated temple was unlike the former for the Ark of the Covenant was missing from the Holy of Holies.

More precious than the Temple itself, the Ark of the Covenant was the concrete assurance of God being always with His people. The Ark was the holiest object on Earth – it was what made the Temple God’s dwelling place, the centerpiece of the Temple in the Holy of Holies. Fashioned by Moses upon God’s own specifications and instructions, it contained the rod of the High Priest Aaron, an urn containing heavenly manna, and the Decalogue given at Sinai, inscribed in tablets of stone. God’s presence, the Shekinah, hovered over it like a cloud day and night (Exo 40:31-34).

The Ark of the Covenant had initially been housed in a portable tabernacle during the wilderness years. It accompanied the Twelve Tribes throughout their desert trek; led the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land, and was at the forefront of every victorious battle in the conquest of Canaan. Its loss was a terrible blow to the Jews. Nobody knew what had happened to it in the chaos and confusion during the fall of Jerusalem.

Around the time of the Hellenistic Period the author of the Second Book of Maccabees, writing in Alexandria, wrote that the prophet Jeremiah had hidden and sealed the Ark in a cave. No one knew of its whereabouts which, according to Jeremiah, was to remain unknown until God gathers His people together again until and shows them His mercy (2 Macc 2:7).

Palestine Jews did not lend credence since they did not accept One and Second Maccabees as part of the Scriptures. Nonetheless they had their Temple again and were filled with expectations of a messiah – one like Moses (cf. Deut 18:15-18) – who would liberate them and usher in a New Exodus in a glorious Messianic era of fulfillment of Scriptures. When Christ did come they failed to recognize Him as the Awaited One in spite of His teachings and miracles. He was rejected by His own people save a remnant that would comprise the nucleus of the New Covenant.

Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians: when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman (4:4). From the earliest times the Church recognized this Woman to be the Blessed Mother Mary, the Woman of the Proto-evangelium: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and between your seed and her seed (Gen 3:15) the Woman who ushers in Christ’s ministry at Cana (Jn 2:1-10); the Woman most-wounded in the soul at the foot of the Cross.

The Gospel of Luke has several key verses with parallels in the Old Testament: Hail full of grace... no mortal was ever greeted by an Archangel in such a manner (Lk 1:35). Proof of her purity. While the Old Testament Ark was the holiest place because of the Law in stone tablets, manna, and the rod of Aaron, the New Testament Ark was an Immaculate Mother from whom the Eternal Word took flesh. God created Mary to be His Mother; her womb virginally pure and undefiled, the holiest place on earth to form His humanity. The Church Fathers saw the Old Testament Ark as a prototype of Mary.

God’s presence that overshadowed the Old Ark likewise overshadows the New; in reply to Mary’s request for a clarification the Angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Elizabeth’s greeting, “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) were reminiscent of David’s remark, “How can the ark of my Lord come to me?” and his joyous leaping dance (2 Sam 6:9; 14-16) was replicated by John in his mother’s womb (Lk 1:44).

Lord (adonai) is a Hebrew title for God; thus in a sense Elizabeth had exclaimed, “Mother of my God” in her greeting. And just as the Ark of the Covenant was in the hill country of Judah for three months (2 Sam 6:11), so was Mary (cf. Lk 1:39, 56).

Jesus is the new commandment of love (Jn 13:34), a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of the Law to be inscribed in the heart (Jer 31:33). Jesus is the true bread of heaven... I am the living bread which came down from heaven (Jn 6:51), prefigured in the manna which in the Old Testament was bread from heaven (Exo 16:14; Psav78:24) 105:40). He is our Eucharistic Manna for the journey to the True Promised Land. Jesus fulfills the Old Testament priesthood as our Eternal High Priest who unceasingly offers Himself and mediates for us to the Father.

When John was exiled at Patmos he was given a vision of the heavenly liturgy. He saw the Ark of the Covenant that had been missing for centuries and immediately after a Woman wearing a crown of twelve stars (Rev, the Ark of (Rev 11:19, 12:1). Mary is that New Covenant Ark: the twelve stars represent Twelve Apostles with her at Pentecost, just as the Twelve Tribes gathered around the Old Covenant Ark. The anguish and pain of childbirth she experiences (Rev 12:3) comes from giving birth to the New Creation at foot of the Cross; the sword thrust though her soul as Simeon had prophesied (Lk 2:35); the wings that allow her to escape the serpent dragon is her freedom from the power of Satan, her Immaculate Conception.

Jesus said, “...when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.” In Christ Jesus, God has gathered His people and shown His mercy; from the Cross He gave us His own Mother entrusting us to her love and care fulfilling what the prophet Jeremiah had foretold about the Ark in 2 Maccabees 2:7.

Favored daughter of the Father, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, and Mother of the Redeemer, we venerate Mary as the Old Testament people venerated the Ark of the Covenant. She is the true Ark of the New and Everlasting Covenant for life’s journey to keep with Her Son, aid us in our daily spiritual battles, and accompany us to the Eternal Promised Land.

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