Theological commentary

MARY - Overshadowing the Shadows

by Andrew Chegwidden

Illumined by the Holy Words of the Old Testament Scriptures, understood in the light of the New, the Christian is able to appreciate the sublimity of the abundant types which prefigure the greatness of Our Lady. These shadows in the Old Testament are manifold, including not only women such as Eve, Judith, and Queen Esther, but also encompassing certain offices such as the Davidic Queen Mother. Here below we shall consider another type which, rooted at the heart of ancient Jewish ritual, foreshadows so profoundly the dignity of the Mother of God - the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant was one of the marvellous treasures with which God blessed his people from the Mosaic period to the time of Jeremiah. The Ark was a sacred chest, fashioned from the purest gold, above which towered two "cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat." [Heb 9:5] It had a prominent ceremonial position in Jewish worship, largely because of the treasures which it housed within its gilded casing, each of which highlights a profound Marian parallel. For the Ark contained three significant items, including firstly the stone pillars of the Law given at Mt. Sinai, as well as the manna from heaven, and lastly the rod of Aaron which had budded miraculously.

Mary, standing exalted as the New Ark of the Covenant, immediately provides the awaited perfection of such a type. For whereas the old Ark held the Law, the written Word of God, Mary held within her spotless womb also the Word of God, not indeed in a merely written form, but in the very Flesh, He who is the Lawgiver Himself, Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Similarly, whilst the old Ark possessed the manna from Heaven, Mary was so blessed as to hold the very Bread of Life Himself, Who also makes explicit such a parallel when He declares: "I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the desert and have died . . . I am the living bread which has come down from heaven . ." [Jn. 6:48-52] How ineffably greater is this Bread! Finally, although the old Ark contained the rod of Aaron, which was a symbol of the Levitical priesthood, Mary held within her, not just a mere symbol of an imperfect priesthood after the order of Aaron, but rather, she bore the High Priest Himself, the "Priest forever, according to the order of Melchisadech." [Heb. 5:6].

Closely associated with the Ark of the Covenant was the bright glory cloud known as the Shekinah, which was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s glorious presence. Notably, this glory cloud on various occasions overshadowed the Ark, and filled it up with the glory of its brightness, such as in Ex. 24:15-16, Ex. 40:34-38, I Kings 8:10. This should instantly remind us of what happened at the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel proclaims to Mary, the second Ark: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee". [Lk. 1:35] Moreover, the Greek word used to denote this ‘overshadowing’ in the Septuagint is the very same Greek verb episkiasdo, which further intensifies the parallel. And so whilst on the one hand we are awe struck at the brightness of the glory cloud over the old Ark, which was so bright that neither Moses nor the priests of the temple could stand in its presence, such a light fades when compared to the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary, which radiated the Light of the World, Who illumines every man who comes into the world, full of grace and truth.

The actions of Mary throughout the Visitation narrative [Lk.1:39-56] provide further insight into Mary’s role as the New Ark of the Covenant, since various striking similarities emerge when one considers the old ark’s procession into Jerusalem related in 2 Sam.6. In comparing the two passages, we notice firstly that both the Ark and Mary enter the hill country of Judah, and remain there for three months. Secondly, when Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, she exclaims: "whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" [Lk. 1:43], which echoes David’s own cry of awe at the Ark: "How shall the ark of the Lord come to me?" [2 Sam.6:9]

Similarly, both are greeted with shouts of joy on their arrival, and both Mary and the Ark are the source of great blessings on the houses they visit. Interestingly, whereas the old Ark caused David to leap "with all his might before the Lord." [2. Sam. 6:14], Mary’s salutation causes the infant in Elizabeth’s womb to leap also. [Lk. 1:41] Finally, Elizabeth’s exclamation in Lk.1:41 recalls the language which once described the ceremonial rituals surrounding the Ark of the Covenant. It is thus apparent that St Luke, under the Inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is subtly yet deliberately highlighting Mary’s role as the New Ark of the Covenant.

The New Testament elsewhere elaborates on Mary’s fulfilment of this ancient type, in the Book of Revelation. Here, starting from Rev. 11:19, St John describes his heavenly vision of the Holy of Holies of the heavenly Jerusalem, wherein he beholds the glorious Ark of the Covenant in its heavenly perfection. In the very next verse he proceeds to describe it. . . And what does he say? . . . He says he saw a "woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars." [Rev. 12:1] This revelation thus confirms once and for all the reality that Mary has now become the glorious New Ark of the Covenant administering in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Furthermore, just as God deigned to preserve the old Ark from any kind of impurities and blemishes, by insisting that it had to be made of the "purest gold, both within and without" [Ex.25:11], and that it was to be made from incorruptible wood [Ex.25:10], so too did He preserve His immaculate Mother, the New Ark of the Covenant, from any stain of sin, nor did He allow her body to suffer any corruptions after her death, but rather assumed her gloriously into Heaven. Similarly, just as God did not permit the old Ark to be stained by the waters of the Jordan river which flowed into the Dead Sea [Jos.3:11-13], neither did He allow the stains of iniquity, carrying mankind down into the Dead Sea of perdition, to touch in any way the beautiful soul of His Mother, the New Ark of the Covenant.

How blessed is the man who confidently invokes Mary under the title of Ark of the Covenant, recalling that if the old Ark was able to lead the Israelites from out of their desert wanderings into the promised land [Jos.6], then how much more would the New and incomparably greater Ark of the Covenant lead us sinners into our Blessed and Heavenly Promised Land, a land flowing with something far greater than milk and honey, flowing indeed with the very participation in the Eternal Beatitude of God.

Andrew Chegwidden is a student at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 2.
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