Listers, as with all Marian doctrine, a better understanding of Mary only serves to illuminate Christ Our Lord, because every grace she received and every role she held within salvation history is rooted in Christ. Her role as the New Ark of the Covenant serves to reveal the true nature of Jesus Christ – one person with two natures: divine and human – and illuminate the purpose of the Incarnation within salvation history. The Old Testament is perfected by the New, and Mother Mary is the perfection of the old Ark of the Covenant.
“We never give more honour to Jesus than when we honour his Mother, and we honour her simply and solely to honour him all the more perfectly. We go to her only as a way leading to the goal we seek – Jesus, her Son.”
Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, #94
Credit & Notable Marian Works
Those looking for a deeper understanding of the Virgin Mary should consult the following works: for an academic but spiritual treatment within the dominican tradition SPL suggests Mother of the Saviour: And Our Interior Life by the keen mind of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., and for a seminal Marian devotional we suggest The True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin by one of the most famous proponents of mariology, St. Louis de Montfort, and finally, for a biblical and basic introduction to the Blessed Virgin – and an excellent primer for protestants – SPL suggests Hail, Holy Queen:The Mother of God in the Word of God by Scott Hahn. Overall, Hahn’s works offer Catholics and non-Catholics alike a wide-range of excellent theological primers, and his Hail, Holy Queen text greatly contributed to the last two points of this list.1
“The ark is verily the holy Virgin, gilded within and without, who received the treasure of universal sanctification. Arise, O Lord, from the Father’s bosom, to raise up again the ruined race of our first parent” (Orat. in Deip. Annunciat. Int. Opp. S. Greg. Thaumaturg) (Blessed Virgin, p. 89). St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213-c. 270)
“As Christ our priest was not chosen by hand of man, so neither was His tabernacle framed by men, but was established by the Holy Ghost; and by the power of God is that tabernacle protected, to be had in everlasting remembrance, Mary, God’s Virgin Mother” (S. Dionysius of Alexandria, Respons. ad Quoest. v. Pauli Samos) (Blessed Virgin, p. 81). St. Dionysius (died 264)
1. Hail, Full of Grace
The Old Ark Was the Physical Dwelling Place of the Shekinah Glory
The New Ark Was the Physical Dwelling Place of the Word Incarnate
The Ark of the Covenant was the point of contact for the presence of God within the Holy of Holies.2
And the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.
At the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel told Mother Mary she would be the Mater Dei, the Mother of God. In her womb God’s physical presence would dwell in a way never before seen: the second person of the Trinity was to take upon human nature, and become Incarnate.
And [the Archangel Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greetings this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.
How is Mary a More Perfect Ark?
The New Testament perfects the Old, and whereas the old Ark of the Covenant had been lost, God provided a new and more perfect one – an immaculate woman. The Ark moves from being a human artifact of wood and gold, to a the highest honored and highest human creature3 The presence of God is perfected insofar as the Second Person of the Trinity becomes Incarnate, and his mission is the forgiveness and satisfaction of mankind.
Why does the Angel say “Full of Grace?”
Entire bulwarks of the Catholic tradition are built upon this phrase, but a brief sketch is necessary to understand Mary’s unique role in salvation history. Grace – as we know it – did not exist before the victory of Christ; moreover, the Old Testament sacrifices forgave sins, but they could not offer proper satisfaction for them – they left man in an infinite debt due to sin. The angel stating “full of grace” points to Mary as Immaculate, the pure vessel of Christ’s Incarnation, the virgin and sinless flesh from which Christ would draw his human nature. Mary was “full of grace” because the was born without original sin and had remained sinless in order to be the New Ark of the Covenant, the Mother of God. It is important to note that Mary’s grace is still rooted in Christ, and is orientated toward the mission of salvation. Both Mary’s biblical roles as the New Ark of the Covenant and of the New Eve articulate a need for her to be perfect in relationship to Christ, not to mention the greatest need of all – it was from her Christ drew his humanity.
2. The Contents of the Arks
Ark Contained the Commandments, Manna, & Aaron’s Rod
New Ark Contained Christ Our Lord: Logos, Bread of Life, King/Priest
The Old Testament Ark was said to contain three things: the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments carved by the finger of God, the priestly rod of Moses’ brother Aaron, and the heavenly manna that sustained Israel in post-Egyptian wandering.
While the old Ark is acacia wood wrapped in gold, the New Ark of the Covenant is the Immaculate Woman Mary. Since being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, her womb became the dwelling place of God on Earth until the birth of Christ. As the New Testament is a perfection and fulfillment of the Old, so too is Christ’s Incarnation in the Virgin Mary a perfection of the Old Ark of the Covenant. The contents of the New Ark perfect the contents of the Old Ark insofar as Christ the Lord takes upon himself the roles of the former objects: Word of God, Bread of Life, & Eternal Priest.
Old & New Contents
The Word of God in the Stone Tablets 4
The Word of God Incarnate
And he took the [tablets of the] covenant and put it into the ark, and put the poles on the ark, and set the mercy seat above on the ark;
Christ’s perfection of the Tablets of the Covenant or more commonly called the Tablets of the Ten Commandments is multifaceted. The most complete perfection is the overall understanding the the primary “Word of God” is not Scripture, but Christ. Christ is the Living Word, the Logos.5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [...] And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
Moreover, the Tablets of the Covenant represented the old convenant and its laws. Christ comes and perfects those laws, most notably during his Sermon on the Mount.6 Changing the Laws requires the proper authority, and to change divine laws requires divine authority. Christ, as the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, obviously had the divine authority and he demonstrated it both as the Eternal King in the lineage of King David and as the Eternal Priest in the lineage of Melchizedek.7
Manna, the Life-giving bread of Heaven
Jesus Christ, the “Bread of Life”
It is fitting that the Book of Hebrews, which has at its core the goal to demonstrate the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament – especially in articulating Christ as our High Priest – would highlight the contents of the Old Ark.8
Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant.
Concerning the Old Ark and manna, Christ our Lord is the perfect “Bread of Life.” In the Gospel of John, Christ gives his famous “Eucharistic Discourse.” The entire latter half of the chapter is an in depth discussion on the Eucharist and Christ’s body and blood as the life giving sacrament.9
I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. [...] So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
Christ’s “Eucharistic Discourse” paves the way for the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In speaking to his disciples, Christ says the following:10
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”
Biblically, it is very clear that the manna of the OT is perfected by the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, which is for us today the source and summit of the Catholic life, the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Aaron’s Rod, the Sign of the Ancestral Priesthood
Christ, the Eternal Priest in the Order of Melchizedek
As in the aforesaid Hebrew’s verse, Aaron’s rod was placed within the Ark of the Covenant. The rod of Aaron was a sign of the priesthood. The book of Hebrews takes up as a main focus the eternal priesthood of Christ Jesus.11
So also Christ did no exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him,
You are my Son, today I have begotten you;
As he says also in another place,
“You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
The subject of Christ as the Eternal Priest is exhausted by the book of Hebrews, and it speaks directly to the argument of how Christ’s priesthood could have perfected the ancestral lineage of the Old Testament priesthood – especially since Christ was not born into that lineage. The author highlights the High Priest Melchizedek, and the legitimacy of Christ’s eternal priesthood being rooted in the Order of Melchizedek.
3. Joy Before the Ark
King David & the Ark
Elizabeth & the New Ark
One intriguing aspect of Hebrew literature is the fact it does not give unnecessary details. Understanding this facet can illuminate certain passages, especially when one notes that the Hebrews were not concerned with many of the attributes the modern western mind expects of stories and history. Along this note, the Catholic tradition observes several OT passages and NT passages that utilize the same details and phrases. The Early Church fathers were quick to extract many of these comparisons, especially in the more broad sense of parallel ideas, e.g., St. Augustine seeing the Creation in Genesis allegorically as the new birth of a Christian soul from “formless and void” to the abundant earth. Other comparisons are more nuanced and exist on noticing exact repetitions of words or phrases within similar circumstances. One such detailed pericope contains the story of when King David received the Ark of the Covenant.12
And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Ba’ale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim.
The passage then recounts the unfortunate story of Uzzah, the man who amongst the merriment put his hand on the Ark after an oxen stumbled. Uzzah was smitten by God, and David became afraid. However, Scripture records the detail of how much time David spent waiting after the death of Uzzah, and that time was three months.
And David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” So David was not willing to take the ark of the LORD into the city of David; but David took it aside to the house of O’bed-e’dom the Gittite. [...] So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of O’bed-e’dom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with 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 horn. As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.
In the Gospel of Luke, the evangelist records the story of when Mary went to visit Elizabeth. The passage utilizes some of the exact phrasing from the pericope in I Samuel, and even replaces the term “ark” with “mother of my Lord” when Elizabeth asks why Mary has come to her, as David did with the Ark.13 The similar language in both selections have been emboldened.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechari’ah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And 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 leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.
After Mary delivers her famous Magnificat, the passage ends telling the reader how much time has elapsed.
And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home.
The similarities between these two passages demand attention. Both begin with the same phrase “arose and went,” both dwelt in the hill country of Judah, David speaks of his unworthiness before the Old Ark as Elizabeth does before the New Ark (even replacing the work ark with “mother of my Lord”), David dances and leaps before the presence of the Lord and John the Baptist leaps in joy within Elizabeth’s womb (often seen as Christ’s presence anointing John to be a prophet), and both remain the same amount of time: three months.14 While comments on Mary as the New Ark abound in Early Church literature, the following quote by Ambrose is especially insightful.
“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” (Serm. xlii. 6, Int. Opp., S. Ambrosii) (Blessed Virgin, p. 77). St. Ambrose (c. 339-397)
4. The Apocalypse of St. John
The Old Was Lost
The New Ark is Found
Many are under the false impression that the Ark of the Covenant was in the Temple during the time of Christ. Commenting on this misunderstanding, biblical scholar and popular writer Scott Hahn states, “around 587 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah concealed the ark in order to preserve it from defilement when Babylonian invaders came to destroy the temple.15
And Jeremiah came and found a cave, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense, and he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall be 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 should be specially consecrated.”
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the Ark within Old Testament Judaism. Given its central role in worship and the fact it was lost, any mention of the Ark of the Covenant during the time it was lost was sure to be noteworthy. In St. John’s Revelation, he mentions the ark at the end of chapter eleven.16
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
Scott Hahn delivers several astute observations regarding the mentioning of the Ark and the Jewish historical context in which St. John was writing. He says, “imagine you are a first -century reader, raised as a Jew. You have never seen the ark, but all your religious and cultural upbringing has taught you to long for its restoration in the temple… the dramatic tension [in John's writing] becomes nearly unbearable. The reader wants to see the ark, as John sees it.”17 However as Hahn notes, St. John does not then go on to speak of the OT Ark (the switch in chapter from 11 to 12 should not import any concern, considering the original texts had no such distinctions). What John does begin to describe is a woman:
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.
As with all Marian doctrine, Christ is the center and he is the key to understanding Revelation 12. Christ is the child born unto the woman.
She brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne,
The child is brought to God and his throne, which must be Christ. Moreover, the child rules with a “rod of iron,” which is a reference to King David, and Christ is the “Son of David” that will sit upon the Davidic throne forever.
Could the Woman be Israel?
While there could be certain traits – even beneficial ones – to understanding the woman as Israel, the Marian readings harmonizes best with the text and would still remain the primary reading. The latter half of St. John’s Revelation chapter reveals more about the woman.
And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child. [...] Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.
Revelation 12 is an exhaustive Marian text, because Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant, the New Eve, and the New Queen of the Davidic Kingdom – and all three of those roles are demonstrated within the chapter as a whole. Within the given pericope, a special enmity is seen between the woman and the dragon, which recalls the reader’s mind to God’s words in Genesis regarding the enmity between Eve and the serpent. A “Israel” reading becomes confusing; Israel could be seen as the mother of Christ – though Mary has historically held the role of Mater Dei, Theotokos, the Mother of God without question – but it is a stretch to see Israel as the mother of Christians. If it is the “New Israel,” the Church, that could present an option, but again, the Church has never been referred to as the Mother of God – she is the Bride of Christ. Biblically speaking, Mother Mary fits the roles within Revelation 12, and for our purposes here, shows herself to be the New Ark of the Covenant.
“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 they graces, O thou full of grace. Accept them as though they were true and adequate praises in they 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” (Orat. In Deip. Annuntiat, nn. 13, 14. Int. Opp. S. Athanasii) (Blessed Virgin, p. 80). St. Athanasius (c. 296-373)
Mother Mary, New Ark of the Covenant, pray for us.
- Early Church Quotes on Mary as the New Ark of the Covenent: SOURCE [↩]
- The Old Ark: Lev 16:2, RSV; Ex 25:10-22 – dimensions, look of the ark [↩]
- Mary as the Highest Created Human: Often times protestants will errnoneously reject this claim based on Christ as the highest created human – this view is a heresy. The personhood of Christ already existed as the Second Person of the Trinity, and he took upon himself human nature; moreover, Christ’s personhood was not created. [↩]
- Ex 40:20 [↩]
- John 1:1, 14a [↩]
- Matthew 5, 6, 7 [↩]
- Christ as “Son of David” - Matt 1:1-2; 9:27-29; Mk 10:47, 48; Promise to King David - I Chron 17:14; Ps 89:35-36; Luke1:31; Christ in the order of Melchizedek – Heb 4:14-5:10; 7; The ability, as the new Priest, to change the law: Heb 7:12 [↩]
- The Contents of the Ark: Hebrews 9:4 (Tablets, Aaron’s Rod, Manna), however, I Kings 8:9 says only the tablets were inside the Ark. Contradiction theories aside, the discrepancy is easily explained by the fact I Kings was written early in the history of the People of Israel, and the rod and manna were simply added later. [↩]
- Eucharistic Discourse: John 6:22-71 – There are protestant objections to this passage, which primarily try to state why Christ was not being literal. Outside the irony that this is one of the only passages the protestant tradition does not advocate a literal reading, the insistence of Christ and his disciples’ reaction to it is clear enough for a literal reading. Every time the disciples misunderstood a teaching, Christ scolded them, but he did not let them leave confused. At the end of this passage, many disciples leave Christ, and Christ not only lets them leave unhindered, but further presses the issue on his disciples. [↩]
- Matthew 26:26 [↩]
- Christ the High Priest: Hebrews 5:5,6 – 7:1-28 [↩]
- King David and the Ark: II Sam 6:2-16 [↩]
- Mary Visits Elizabeth: Gospel of Luke 1:39-56 [↩]
- Comparison Credit: the comparison between II Sam 6 and Luke 1 is described in Scott Hahn’s work Hail Holy Queen (p.63-64), which is an excellent introduction to understanding the biblical roles of Mary, especially for those of the protestant ecclesial communities. [↩]
- The Ark is Hidden: 2 Mac 2:5-8 [↩]
- The Ark & Mary as the New Ark in Revelation: Revelation 11:19 – 12:17 [↩]
- Hahn, 54 [↩]