Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant

Image: Visitation, by Jacobo Pontormo (1494-1557)

One of my deeply held convictions is that we are called to learn our whole life through. Curiosity keeps the mind pliable; certainty seems to settle the mind like concrete. And this is one of the things I love about being a priest: it’s a vital part of my vocation to learn, research, inquire, and discover.

Well, recently, as I was doing some research on the Feast of the Visitation, I ran across a fascinating image: Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. While new to me, this is apparently a very old typology to compare Mary, the God-bearer, to the Ark of the Covenant, which was imbued with God’s presence.

As early as the 4th century, Church Fathers were describing Mary as a type of ark, or vessel of the Divine Presence: “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” (Athanasius of Alexandria, Homily of the Papyrus of Turin).

Steve Ray has compiled an accessible review of Marian typology, and includes these detailed comparisons that the Gospel writer, Luke, most certainly would have been aware of as he composed his narrative of the Visitation:

Mary, the Ark As Revealed in Mary’s Visit to Elizabeth

Golden Box: Ark of the Old Covenant Mary: Ark of the New Covenant
The ark traveled to the house of Obed-edom in the hill country of Judea (2 Sam. 6:1-11). Mary traveled to the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39).
Dressed as a priest, David danced and leapt in front of the ark (2 Sam. 6:14). John the Baptist – of priestly lineage – leapt in his mother’s womb at the approach of Mary (Luke 1:41).
David asks, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam. 6:9). Elizabeth asks, “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43).
David shouts in the presence of the ark (2 Sam. 6:15). Elizabeth “exclaimed with a loud cry” in the presence of the Mary (Luke 1:42).
The ark remained in the house of Obed-edom for three months (2 Sam. 6:11). Mary remained in the house of Elizabeth for three months (Luke 1:56).
The house of Obed-edom was blessed by the presence of the ark (2 Sam. 6:11). The word blessed is used three times; surely the house was blessed by God (Luke 1:39-45).
The ark returns to its home and ends up in Jerusalem, where God’s presence and glory is revealed in the temple (2 Sam. 6:12; 1 Kgs. 8:9-11). Mary returns home and eventually ends up in Jerusalem, where she presents God incarnate in the temple (Luke 1:56; 2:21-22).

Mary as the Ark Revealed by Items inside the Ark

Inside the Ark of the Old Covenant Inside Mary, Ark of the New Covenant
The stone tablets of the law – the word of God inscribed on stone The body of Jesus Christ – the word of God in the flesh
The urn filled with manna from the wilderness – the miraculous bread come down from heaven The womb containing Jesus, the bread of life come down from heaven (John 6:41)
The rod of Aaron that budded to prove and defend the true high priest The actual and eternal High Priest

 

Father in heaven, by your grace the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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