An ancient title of the Mary is Ark of the Covenant. The Church Fathers saw the parallels between the Old Testament wooden chest containing the divine presence and the Virgin about to give birth to Jesus.* More recently this theme has been developed by Tim Staples - a Baptist minister who converted to Catholicism. In a tape series titled All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed Tim brings out the similarities between the Gospel we just heard (Lk 1:39-45, the Visitation) and the ascent of the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:1-15). Let me mention three.
1. As the ark is brought to Jerusalem, King David is overcome with awe saying, "How can the ark of the Lord come to me?" (v. 9)
2. The ark remains three months in the hill country near Jerusalem, bringing great blessings to the house of Obed-edom. (v.11)
3. King David leaps for joy - dancing before the ark. (v. 13)
In today's Gospel, Elizabeth says to Mary, "Who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" She tells how the babe (John the Baptist) leaped in her womb as she became filled with the Holy Spirit. Finally Mary remains three months with her kinswoman before returning to her home.
Are the parallels coincidental? The Church Fathers did not think so. At the end of the Bible John tells his vision of a heavenly ark. (Rev. 11:19) In the following verse we discover who it is: "a woman clothed with the sun, with moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars." While this woman has a collective significance, representing the Church as the new Israel, she also is an historical person: "She brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations..." (12:6)**
In recent years there has been much interest in the Old Testament ark, even a hit movie based on the search to discover it. But, for all its glory, the ark was a mere image of something to come. I have on my wall several pictures of little girl I am quite fond of. I look at the pictures a few times each day. But if that child were to enter my room, I would turn from the fotos and look at her. I don't need the images any more because the reality is here.
The Ark has disappeared from history. In spite of intriguing theories, we do not know what happened to it. But it does not matter so much because we now have the reality it pointed to.
This Sunday, so close to Christmas, the Church invites us to focus our attention on Mary, round-wombed because of the God-child. As we say in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin: "Ark of the Covenant, pray for us."
*For example: St. Athanasius:
"O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O 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."
Gregory of Neo-Caesarea (3rd Century) quotes Psalm 132 as referring to Mary: "Arise O Lord to Thy resting place; Thou and the ark of Thy sanctification" (Psalm 132:8). In this regard, he said, "For the holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without (Exodus 25:10-11, 37:1-2), that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary" (Homily I on the Annunciation).
For the importance of this theme in ecumenical dialogue see article by Jon Jacobson:
"Once we recognize Mary as the Ark of the Covenant for the Church (as taught by Luke 1:26-56, alluding to Exodus 40:34-35 and 2 Samuel 6:8-16), we see why it was not possible for any man to violate her pure virginity (cf. Numbers 4:15, Ezekiel 44:1-4). Luther, Calvin, and Wesley all echoed the Patristic consensus on Mary's perpetual virginity, and all Evangelicals should return to the consensus the Holy Spirit preserved in the Church for over sixteen centuries.
Transcript of tape by Dr. Scott Hahn Mary: Ark of the Covenant, in which he develops insights of Fr. Rene Laurentin and Scripture scholar Fr. David Stanley.
Answers to Objections
**In his Biblical Portrait of Mary, Robert J. Payesko says this:
Since the Book of Revelation was not accepted as part of the canon of Scripture for several centuries, it had no early tradition of interpretation. Once its canonicity was established, the identification of Mary with the Woman of Revelation 12 became obvious (since the Woman's Man-Child was Jesus). For instance, Epiphanius in 367 A.D. gave a Marian interpretation and Quodvultdeus, a disciple and friend of Augustine, wrote, "None of you is ignorant of the fact that the dragon was the devil. The woman signified the Virgin Mary." (De Symbolo 3, PL 40, 661).
John Henry Cardinal Newman comments:
What I would maintain is this, that the Holy Apostle would not have spoken of the Church under this particular image, unless there had existed a blessed Virgin Mary, who was exalted on high and the object of veneration to all the faithful. No one doubts that the "man-child" spoken of is an allusion to our Lord; why then is not "the Woman" an allusion to his mother?
This passage has traditionally had a double interpretation, which is not unusual in Scripture. The primary application is to the Church, or the people of God. But a secondary reference can legitimately be made to the Blessed Virgin Mary, according to the literal meaning of 12:5, in which she bears the Messiah, Jesus (see Psalm 2:9). As such, the passage echoes the Mary/Eve symbolism of John 19:26-27. Furthermore, the war with the dragon (identified as Satan in 12:9) recalls the Protoevangelion of Genesis 3:15 ("her seed" / "her offspring" battle the devil), and supports the notion of the spiritual motherhood of Mary. The symbolism of Mary as the Church and the New Eve was already prevalent in the early centuries of the Church. The "woman" here gives birth "in anguish" (12:2), which hearkens back to Genesis 3:16, and is perhaps an anticipation of Calvary. (See Mary, A Biblical Treatise)
From Archives (Homilies for Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C