ANSWERING COMMON OBJECTIONS
MARY, ARK OF THE COVENANT
The most prominent scriptural theme in the liturgical text of the Church when it comes to the feast of the Assumption, which we are celebrating happily today. You can see, if you had a missalette that the reading for the Vigil of the Assumption has some text that at first might seem to be rather odd and out of place. For instance, we had a reading from 1st Chronicles 15. It doesn't mention Mary. All it talks about is how David assembled all Israel and Jerusalem to bring the Ark of the Lord to the place which he had prepared for it. It talks about how the Levites then bore the Ark of God on their shoulders with poles as Moses had ordained and then how David commands all of this music and all of this rejoicing.
Then it describes, finally how the Ark is brought into the tabernacle which David had pitched for it and they offer all these sacrifices and peace offerings to God, and then David turns around and blesses the people in the name of the Lord. And you're thinking, "Why choose this text? There are literally thousands of texts to choose from, why a text about a box? And all of these guys jumping and singing and dancing around a box, and putting it in a tent and then singing and dancing and offering sacrifices and blessing people in the text?"
Kind of unusual. But then for the Responsorial Song in the Vigil Mass from Psalm 132, the responsorial is , "Lord, go up to the place of your rest, you and the Ark of you holiness." Now, this isn't Noah's ark, this is the Ark of the Covenant. We'll get a little bit more into the background in just a minute, but why the Ark of the Covenant, and this is an ancient liturgical tradition. These are texts that have been included in the liturgy of the Assumption as far back as we can trace it, and this is like 7th Century, 6th Century. We can't trace it back much farther than that, but all this historical evidence points to the fact that this has been celebrated from ancient times. So you can't just say, "Well it popped out of nowhere in the 6th and 7th Century," because back then Churches were liturgically hyper- conservative. I mean you didn't just innovate and then say, "Well, we've got a new feast." Then all of a sudden have it catch on in the Church all around the world.
But that's what you find in the feast of the bodily Assumption. The first records of it are in the 6th and 7th Centuries as being done everywhere, accepted by all without an argument. And the texts that are used are like this: Solomon, 1:32 that talks about, "Lord, go to the place of your rest, you and the Ark of your holiness. May your priests be clothed with justice. Let your faithful ones shout merrily for joy for the sake of David, your servant. For the Lord has chosen Zion. He prefers her for his dwelling. Zion is my resting place forever, and here will I dwell for I prefer her. Lord, go up to the place of your rest, you and the Ark of your holiness."
Now, calling Mary "Ark of the Covenant" is not only something that we find in these ancient liturgical texts. We also find it, where else? In the Litany of Loretto, the long litany to our Lady. Ark of the Covenant, ora pro nobis. Pray for us, right? Now, why is this the case? Well, as we read the texts for today's feast, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we notice that the first reading is taken from the Book of Revelation. That is going to be our primary focus.
The Book of Revelation as Primary Focus
Turn with me now to Revelation, chapter 11. Revelation, chapter 11, we're going to begin with verse 19. We're going to begin reading with verse 19, but let me in fairness back up so you get a little context. At the beginning of chapter 11, we're told about this holy city which will be trampled under for 42 months. Most scholars think that it's a reference to Jerusalem. Why? Well, because in 11:8, we're told about that great city which spiritually has become like Sodom in Egypt, where the Lord was crucified. Well, that gives it away. Where was the Lord crucified? Jerusalem. But this city has become like Sodom in Egypt? Yes, even our Lord said, "Fill up the measure of your fathers," and talked about how all the righteous blood shed on earth from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, was shed, who was slain between the altar. All this blood will come upon Jerusalem. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, stoning the prophets and killing those who were sent to you. How often I would have gathered you to myself as a hen gathers her brood, but you would not let me."
Jerusalem would not let the Lord gather his children to himself. And it heaped up blood upon itself, so much so that the really righteous Jews, the anawim, the holy, even the pious, educated folks had to leave Jerusalem more often than not. You know about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran community, all these people who were even respected by the people they didn't respect, because they were holy and pious and for that reason they felt that they had to scram from Jerusalem. The place was really getting foul. Even Josephus, in his description of the downfall and the destruction and ruin of Jerusalem and the temple, says that never was there a generation of my people so ripe and worthy for such destruction.
So the city is being compared to Sodom in Egypt, the city where the Lord was crucified. 11:1, the seer it told to go measure the temple of God and the altar but not the altar court and then the Holy City is to be trampled for forty-two months, and historically, almost works out exactly because the Roman siege of Jerusalem lasted about three-and-a-half years, leading up to the destruction in 70 A.D. The Jewish revolt began about 66 A.D.
Background (Rev. 11: 1-13)
Then, all of a sudden in 11:13, there's an earthquake and a collapse and it all revolves around the seven trumpets. Now we can really get caught up in all the sevens of Revelation: there are seven seals and seven everything, but this all occurs as a result of the seventh trumpet. Now you're religious educators. I could probably get away with playing games, but I won't because after lunch, we're a little bit tired. But where, rhetorically I'll ask, where in the Old Testament do you remember the seventh trumpet being blown and like loud noise and earthquake and destruction and a city crumbling and collapsing? Jericho! All right! Good, so it's Jericho and the priests were commanded by none other than Joshua, who was under the command of the archangel, the angel of the Lord. According to Joshua, in Joshua 5, seven priests were carrying trumpets and on the seventh day they marched around the city seven times, blaring those trumpets. And on the seventh time with the seventh blow, that city fell, and it was the greatest and most intimidating political and military force in the entire promised land, some scholars suggest.
In other words, tackling Jericho first was like the hardest task of all, and they did it without raising a spear. But those priests who went around seven times blowing the trumpets the seventh time did it behind the Ark of the Covenant. The specific stipulation required is that you do it behind the Ark of the Covenant. You carry it with you. Now I'm saying all this because I think that John is not just inspired by the Spirit, but the guy knows his Hebrew bible like the back of his hand, really, really well.
So he's hoping that some readers are going to get all this surplus meaning, all this surplus value; because if you know traditions, then another person who knows the same traditions can just kind of say one word or one phrase and all of a sudden a spark will evoke your recollection. I sometimes illustrate this with my college students. I'll say to a cute girl student in the front of the class, "Come out, Virginia, don't make me wait. You Catholic girls start much too late!"
Now, maybe this is before or after Perry Como and Henry Mancini, so you might not -- no, I'm joking. You all know who I'm talking about. How many of you will recognize that song? Billy Joel, right? One of his all-time quadrillion sellers, "Only the Good Die Young." Virginia is kind of a little catch phrase for virgin. He's a Brooklyn Jew and he's talking about all of these Catholic girls "who don't count on me. You were counting on your rosary. Woe, woe," and all that stuff. And as soon as I say, "Come on Virginia, can't make me wait. You Catholic girls start much too late," Sally or Suzie up front in that row turn beet red because she knows the song. And as soon as she hears the line, she knows that Billy is trying to seduce that girl in the song and it evokes the whole meaning of the whole message.
That's the power of tradition. That's the power of liturgical texts in a community that is in touch with its roots. And that is why Mary is so misunderstood or disbelieved or just simply uncomprehended by people today. Because we know American culture and the liturgical texts that we read from the New Testament often were written by people for people who knew the Hebrew bible like we know prime time TV or the top 40.
So we've got to get a little bit into the background in order just to get started in 11:19. But enough of this. Sometimes I'm like the pole vaulter who backed up so far, he was exhausted by the time he got to the vault. Okay, 11:19, we shouldn't be surprised then when we read, "God's temple in heaven was opened and within his temple was seen the Ark of the Covenant." Now, on the one hand we shouldn't be too surprised, but on the other hand we would be incredibly surprised as Jewish Christians who know the tradition by that one verse.
Well, first of all, "God's temple in heaven." Where do we get the idea that there isn't just a temple in Jerusalem on earth, but there's also a temple in heaven? Well, when God gave instructions to David and Solomon on how to build the temple, it was all according to a pattern that had been prophetically revealed to David, just like the tabernacle had been revealed to Moses when he was on top of Mount Sinai, and this glory cloud descended in all this fire and smoke. He was in some way transported to heaven where he saw this pattern that became the blueprint for the portable temple known as the tabernacle and then later the stationary one that Solomon built.
Both of these correspond to the heavenly temple, the original, "the real thing," as Madison Avenue would say. God's temple in heaven was opened and all of a sudden, John, "Wow, that's the real temple." As the Jerusalem temple is getting ready to be destroyed and the holy city is getting ready to be trampled, John will not despair because he realizes that the true temple, the permanent, eternal temple is safe and standing strong.
He looks and he doesn't just see the temple, he sees it open. He doesn't just see inside, he sees all the way into the holy of holies. How do we know? Because what does he see? The Ark of the Covenant, which is exactly that which made the holy of holies the holiest place in the temple. It's precisely because if that was there with the cherubim and the mercy seat, that was called the holy of holies. So he's seeing right into it, but he is seeing something which has not been seen for over five centuries by any Jew. Because right before Nebuchadnezzar came in 586 to destroy Jerusalem, according to Jewish tradition, Jeremiah swiped the Ark and took it off and hid it, some say in Mount Nebo, but they never found it.
But when the second temple was built, no Ark of the Covenant, no mercy seat, no cherubim and also no shekina. What's a shekina? That is the dwelling presence of God, the glory cloud which at once is luminous and yet dark. It's that within which you saw all the thunder and the lightning. It's that which Moses entered, the shekina. It's what made the tabernacle so holy. In fact when this glorious cloud descended from heaven down to the tabernacle that had been built, Moses himself couldn't even enter the tabernacle, much less the other priests, to do service because the glorious, smoky cloud of God's presence filled it, once the Ark had been consecrated.
When Solomon built the temple, after seven years he had this great feast of dedication and at the end of it he had pronounced this long prayer and he offered up sacrifices, and then all of a sudden fire came down from heaven and consumed all the sacrifices on the altar. Everybody falls flat on their faces and they just cry, "Glory!" The shekina is there to stay until Ezekiel sees it depart. In fact, he was to name one of his kids Ichobod because the glory is departed. Ichobod, the glory is departed, Ichobod Crane and all that stuff, right? Same thing.
The glory departs right before the Babylonians come in. Seventy years later or so, when they begin rebuilding the temple, the Ark is not found. It's not returned. No mercy seat, cherubim and thus no shekina. No glorious cloud signifying the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the Wailing Wall to this day. The prime purpose of the Wailing Wall is to bewail the loss of the shekina, the glorious cloud, presence of God dwelling in the midst of Israel.
So this is the sight of sights to behold. He looks up and he sees what no one has seen for like six centuries, the Ark of the Covenant right where it belongs, in the only place in the cosmos where it would be safe, God's temple in heaven. Now remember that when John wrote this, there were no chapter and verse divisions. Right? Those were added in the Middle Ages. And so we move from 11:19 right into 12:1, but of course, without any chapter division.
Psychologically, that really undoes us, because there is no real text division. "Then God's temple in heaven was opened and within his temple was seen the Ark of the Covenant and there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and earthquake and great hailstorm and a great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven." No break, it just flows. "A woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth." And it goes on to talk about the second sign, this dragon with seven heads who turns out to be none other than the ancient serpent who did in the first woman, Eve, in the Garden, that ancient serpent, the dragon Satan.
Then she gives birth to a male child who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter, which is a reference back to Psalm 2, verse 9, one of the most famous psalms that prophesied the coming of the Messiah and his destiny and the rule that God would give to him. So, here we have the primary texts that we will be spending some time on, but I want to focus now our attention back on the Ark of the Covenant. We've already said some things about it with the Old Testament in mind, but I want to give you some details that you might not have known, just to kind of fill out the picture.
Details About the Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant is first mentioned in Exodus 25, verses 10 through 22, Exodus 25:10-22 and then again in Deuteronomy 10, verses 1 and 2. There are other places as well but those will suffice for now. Let me explain what seems to be happening in the narrative of Exodus to bring about the Ark of the Covenant. I am going to share this as one of those exciting, innovative, novel discoveries that I've made, only to discover that Sts. Ephram, Methodius and Augustine and Jerome and others had discovered it, but I have not yet found that maybe three or four scholars out of hundreds that I have checked in this century who are aware of it. Not because they are less brilliant than me; they are ten times more brilliant than me. They are writing better articles and they are tackling contemporary problems and stuff, so I delve into the antiquarian things that tantalize people like me.
So anyway, we find here in Exodus 25, verses 10 through 22 the Ark of the Covenant made of acacia wood. It's a box covered with pure gold which is significant as we will see because gold is always associated with royalty and purity perhaps, and it talks about what they put into the Ark. Verse 16, "You shall put into the Ark the testimony which I shall give you." Which ends up, of course being the stone tablets with the ten words, the decalogue, the Ten Commandments upon it. And then later on Aaron's rod which blossomed as well as a little urn which held the manna with which God fed Israel for those forty years in the wilderness.
"Then above the Ark you make two cherubim of gold, of hammered work shall you make them." And then it goes on talking about the mercy seat. "The cherubim shall spread out their wings overshadowing the mercy seat with their faces one to another." Now this is the architectural description, the actual construction is in Exodus 37:1- 9, but since it's practically verbatim, we won't bother reading through it again.
Now here's the problem and I think a potential insight because there's a real difficulty figuring out when did they build the Ark and why. When did they build the Ark and why? And for that matter, since the Ark is just one thing among many that are being described, Moses has been told how to build all this furniture, all these utensils for the tabernacle in Exodus 25 through 31, all that space is spent describing the furniture in the tabernacle and the tabernacle itself, this tent they'll carry around, the question is, "Why a tabernacle?"
Origin of the Ark
Well, I'm going to try to give you the answer quickly, just jump in the back of the book so to speak. This is a theory that you may never have heard. I've got lots of sources to substantiate it and lots of other alternative explanations, so this is my opinion. This is not the Catholic Church's teaching. If I'm wrong, Mary still stands and the dogma of the Assumption and the Ark of the Covenant does, too. Anyway, here's what I've come to and I found it in St. Thomas' Summa and in many other sources. Before the Golden Calf, God had invited all of them in Israel to be to him a kingdom of priests. That meant not just one tribe, the Levites to be priestly, but all twelve tribes. That also means not just the tribes but the family units.
So each family tent was potentially and by all divine desire a tabernacle, a sacred tent. Each father would be like a high priest. Each firstborn son would be like what the Levites later became. Each meal would be like a sacrifice, a festival, a thanksgiving to God. So that each home is for all practical purposes a sacred place. That was God's intention in Exodus 19:6, "I want you to be a kingdom of priests." Not a kingdom of warriors, economists and politicians. Are you willing to trust me to be unlike any other nation. What he is basically saying is we renounce the lower goods of this earth in order to trust me to use you to teach the nations what righteousness means, what justice is all about, what serving others consists of. And their answer is, well they're talking out of both sides of their mouth, just like we do.
At first they say yes and then they live out their no. How did they live it out? While Moses is up there, he gets instructions for the Israelites. Wash, don't get near the mountain until after three days, and during those three days abstain from all sex. Three days later I will come down and meet with you. You can come up to me then. I want you all to come up. Three days later God comes down and the people don't come up and won't come up because they are scared. Figure it out! Three days without?, nah. It's forbidden fruit. Can't do it. So like three days later: Moses you go up, Right?
And so they abandon this high and lofty goal. So Moses goes up and God says, "They got it right. They were wise in not coming up. In fact, set up these boundaries so they don't set foot on this mountain." Then the people in the valley hear this thunderous, shattering, roaring voice of God as he proclaims ten words. It just so happens that in the Hebrew coincidentally the shema is exactly ten words, "Hear Israel, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength." That's ten words in Hebrew.
In Deuteronomy that seemed to be the gist of what God was pronouncing and proclaiming from the top of Sinai for the people to hear below. Moses heard it very clearly in Hebrew. All the people heard was a thunderous roar. It's almost like St. Paul on the Damascus road where he hears Jesus and the other people only hear thunder. Depends on the faith that God has given. All right, Moses comes down, invites seventy elders up and says, "Will you seventy elders cooperate?" They cooperate. They go up. They sacrifice some offerings. They throw the blood on the altar and on the representatives of the people to seal a family covenant with Yahweh and then they sit down and eat a meal in Yahweh's presence. And it says, "And they didn't die." Which means that plan B might work. It might work. Instead of all of Israel, at least the seventy elders. Right? Wrong!
Moses goes up for thirty days to fast. Around day 39, the people begin to think the guy's been roasted and fried to a crisp. After all you look up and you see this fiery cloud. You don't hear his voice and you don't see a figure. You think, "If that really is as much fire as we think and it's been burning so long and hot, that guy's fried to a crisp." Whatever they thought, they enticed Aaron, pressured him perhaps, to build a Golden Calf which was one of the prime symbols of the Egyptian caste cult of Apus. It was the fertility cult that worshipped sexual pleasure, economic prosperity and political power. It was one of the primary religious functions of the Egyptian priests. And they go back into their old Egyptian idolatrous ways.
Now don't minimize or underestimate what happened here because what God says is "Go down Moses, because your people who you brought out of Egypt have committed a great sin." He officially disowns Israel in Exodus 32. Moses goes down, finds the people. It says, "They broke loose to their shame," which means in Hebrew they stripped their clothes off and they were involved in a sexual orgy as part of the liturgy. You know, back then if you wanted to choose your liturgy by what was really hot and, you know, you would not have been Israelite. You know, it was attractive in some other ways.
Moses goes down, smashes the tablets and calls out, "Who's on the Lord's side?" Only the Levites respond. He says, "Take every man his sword and slay every man his kinsmen." And the Levites do. Three thousand Israelites dead that afternoon. Moses says, "Today Levites, you have earned the priesthood." So Numbers chapters 1 through 8 describe how this census is taken of all twelve tribes, except for Levi, of all the firstborn sons and of all the Levite males 30 to 50 years old. And then what the firstborn had, they're systematically defrocked, and it's given to the Levites.
So, in front of all twelve tribes and all the clans and all the families and households being tabernacle churches, being a kingdom of priests, they have been laicized. The tribe of Levi alone. And in the interim, you know between the time of the Golden Calf and the time of this new system to be set up, we read in Exodus 33, verse 7, that Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. In other words this tabernacle was no longer in the middle of the camp. God wanted to dwell in the midst of his people, but they were no longer able to stand his presence. So Moses had to pitch the tent outside the camp.
God said, "This won't do. I want to be in the midst of my people, but they are too defiled." So he sets up a new arrangement in the Book of Numbers and Leviticus. The four clans of the tribe of Levi would basically form a box around the tabernacle and then the twelve tribes can circle around the four clans of the tribe of Levi. Only then will God allow the tabernacle to be back in the middle of the family of Israel. The nation will not have God's presence in the middle unless it's surrounded by the Levites who took their swords and slew the idolaters.
In other words this idea of only having one tabernacle that God would dwell in and only having it surrounded by Levites so that, you know, none were chosen from the tribe of Ruben or Gad or Naphtali, they couldn't get near the tabernacle. If they did, the Levites were commanded to slice them to ribbons. Prior to the Golden Calf, every tabernacle potentially could have had tongues of fire resting upon it, being a domestic church with the fathers high priests and the firstborn son is like a deacon or whatever.
Afterwards, they lose it all. And at that point in time we had the tabernacle constructed and the Ark put into the holy of holies. The people wanted Aaron to be their priest. They got him to build the Golden Calf. They didn't want Moses any more. So God says, "My punishment is, you want it, you got it. Aaron, you be the high priest from now on." And whereas Exodus 33, verse 7, tells us that Moses used to be able to go into God's own presence any time he wanted; day after day he could go into the holy of Holies. After God gives into the Israelites, he says, "Okay, fine. Moses won't be your mediator-priest. Aaron will."
Aaron is never allowed into the holy of holies. He can't go in every day. He can't go before God's presence. He can't stand before the Ark of the Covenant except once a year on Yom Kippur. And what does he do first before he goes in? He has to slay a -- got it -- calf. Why? And all of the sons of Aaron throughout all generations have to slay a calf. Why? As an act of repentance and renunciation for leading the people into idolatry by building the calf in the first place. All the Rabbis knew what it was for.
In other words from the Golden Calf until the coming of Christ Israel no longer desired, apparently, but were allowed, they weren't allowed this immediate face-to-face access with Yahweh. Although that's what he desired, he recognized, "I'll wipe them out if they get too close." It's for their sake. Surround me with Levites and even the Levites couldn't go in. Only the Aaronites, and then only one Aaronite once a year and with the blood of the calf.
Ark Was Powerful
The Ark of the Covenant couldn't be touched. And yet the Ark of the Covenant was so powerful. Whenever they went off into battle, the Levites had to disassemble the tabernacle, but only the Aaronites could actually handle the Ark. The Levites could handle the poles on which it rested and they could carry it. But if they carried that Ark in the battle, their foes trembled. Once it was captured by the Philistines because of the wickedness of the Jews. It's taken by the Philistines to the Temple of Dagon. We read about it in 1st Samuel. And the Philistines can't believe their lucky day. They got the Ark of the Covenant, the secret nuclear weapon that the Israelites possessed to wipe out all their foes.
The next morning they wake up to celebrate and the idol of Dagon has fallen face down and smashed to pieces before the Ark. Then all of a sudden plagues break out among the Philistines. They say, "We don't want this Ark." And on the way back, the text describes how a bunch of men started to peer into it and it depends upon which variant reading is right but either dozens or maybe thousands of them were slaughtered on the spot. Well, you might think, "Well, they were just pagans. They were just, you know, uninterested bystanders just looking in for fascination and sensation."
But take a look with me at 2nd Samuel, chapter 6, and you'll see something that does not concern outsiders so much. You'll see here how seriously God takes the holiness of the Ark. David has become king. He has just conquered Jerusalem and he knows what he wants for Jerusalem: to make it his capitol and to make it the place where the Lord will be worshipped. Verse 1, "David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose and all the people with him from Baal Judah to bring up from there the Ark of God which is called by the name of the Lord of Hosts who sits enthroned upon the cherubim. And they carried the Ark of God upon a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill, and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab were driving the new cart."
Now, unbeknownst to you perhaps, it's not all kosher. The Levites alone were allowed to do it and so something had to change. And it says in verse 5, "And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the Lord with all their might with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines, castanets and cymbals." Then it says, "And when they came to the threshing floor of Nakan, Uzzah put out his hand to the Ark of God and took hold of it for the oxen stumbled." I mean you can really feel for this guy. He's a pious soul. He's accompanying the Ark of the Covenant. He's not a Levite so everything is not exactly perfectly pure, but he's helping drive the cart and all of a sudden the oxen stumble. The Ark of the Covenant could fall into the mud or the dust or whatever. It could be defiled. So pious Uzzah does what anybody might be tempted to do. He straightens it out. Right? I mean after all there might be some law against non-Aaronites touching it, you know, but better to touch it and to set it straight than to have it fall down. Right? Wrong!
"And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the Ark, and he died there beside the Ark of God. And David was afraid." Some translations render it angry, "because the Lord had broken forth upon Uzzah and that place is called Perez-Uzzah to this day. 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 into the house of Obededom, the Gittite. The Ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obededom three months and the Lord blessed Obededom and all his household.
David Rejoices as the Ark is Brought to Jerusalem
"Then it was told King David, 'The Lord has blessed the household of Obededom and all that belongs to him because of the Ark of God.'" So he changes his mind. "David went and brought up the Ark of God from the house of Obededom to the city of David with rejoicing." When you see the parallel text in the Chronicles, you see that this time they play it right by the book and the Levites do everything they are supposed to and nothing more. "They do so with rejoicing and when those who bore the Ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling every six paces." Another sacrifice. "And David danced before the Lord with all his might." And the word for dance, the word there in Hebrew is a whirling, swirling, twirling dance that is often used in cultic liturgy by the priests of ancient times.
"And David was girded with a linen ephod," which according to Samuel 2 and in other places, only Levites are supposed to wear. David is beginning to think of himself as a priest-king. Then it goes on and talks about how finally the Ark comes to Jerusalem and David is just flipping out. He's so excited. He pitches a tent. He gives people bread and wine and a cake of raisins, and then he blesses the people in the holy name of the Lord, and then the very next thing that happens is in 2nd Samuel 7, the ultimate covenant that God wanted for David is established in response to how David treated the Ark, after he had learned a bad lesson the hard way.
What is the Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant -- what is it? Well, if you were here this morning, I mentioned some interesting facts that I will repeat right now for your sake, for those who weren't here. In a recent study by a German scholar named Afmar Kiel, one of the most respected on the continent, he does a study and finds that this idea of an ark box is common throughout the ancient Near East. What it was is basically like a throne stand. And the idea of having the cherubim cover the ark, that also is found in many other cultures. He says, "The great popularity of cherubim thrones is demonstrated in Cana and Phoenicia during the late Bronze and early Iron Ages. Excavators describe it 'as a female figure sitting on a square armchair.'"
Now what Professor Kiel has shown us is that throughout the ancient world, you have this kind of throne box with the cherubim angels or whatever over top and on the box normally sat a queen, a female figure enthroned in kind of an armchair. The only thing really strange about Israel's Ark is that it was empty. There never sat anybody enthroned upon it. Other people might have carried these boxes off to battle with the Queen Mother inspiring all kinds of courageous feats of valor in battle. But not Israel. The Ark itself was enough, even though it was empty. It was almost a confession as though our Messiah has not come and everything is not what it will be.
Relation Between "Woman Clothed with the Sun" and the Ark
And so the Ark was empty throughout the Old Testament as long as they had the Ark of the Covenant. Think of that in relation to Revelation 11 and 12 because I would suggest to you to give you what I am going to develop in a minute, that woman clothed with the sun, with a crown of twelve stars with the moon under her feet is the one who has taken the throne of the Ark of the Covenant. Now you might think, "Well wait a second, wouldn't that be reserved for God? Wouldn't that be reserved for the place of the Messiah? Who is this woman, this mere human to take her place on the Ark, the mercy seat?"
Well, if you do a little more study, you discover that in Ezekial, chapter 1 and in Ezekial, chapter 10, Ezekial sees a heavenly vision and he beholds this rainbow and he beholds these cherubim that look like an ox, a lion, an eagle and a man, and above the cherubim, on a throne above the cherubim is a figure like the Son of Man. Later on we learn that that, of course is in a sense a pre-incarnate Christophany. It's Christ even before he became a human. He is ruling in some figurative way so that Ezekial could see in his vision the idea that above the cherubim sits enthroned this Lord who it said looks like a man.
Now the reason I mention that is because Revelation 4 and 5 describes the same throne encircled by a rainbow, the sapphire throne is above the cherubim and on it sits the Lamb of God, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah above the cherubim. Now the cherubim are stationed in such a way that the Ark is below it, in other words another throne with another place for another ruler. And as soon as he sees the Ark, in the same breath, he describes the woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet and she is crowned, like a woman enthroned should be.
This is why from earliest times this kind of association has been made quite naturally. Now, more evidence. Let's take a look with me at Luke, chapter 1, verse 35, Luke, chapter 1, verse 35. In recent years more exegesis has been done on this passage than on any other to show this typological connection, this figurative link between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant. "And the angel answering said to her, 'The holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.'"
Now, let's first of all look at the phrase the Spirit, "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee." In the actual Greek, the definite article "the" is missing for both Holy Spirit and the Most High. The very Hebraic expression, it almost evokes a Hebrew connection intentionally, I believe. Think back in the Old Testament where the Holy Spirit would come down. Think of Genesis 1, verse 2, where you have the Spirit of God hovering over the water, the shapeless creation from which order evolves and emerges. Likewise in Genesis 2, the Spirit comes down and in the lifeless body of Adam God breathes into his nostrils, the ruah, the breath of life, and so he becomes a living soul, nefesh.
Throughout the Old Testament, Psalm 104 the Holy Spirit gives life to the entire earth. The Holy Spirit gives life-giving power, life- giving love. In Ezekial 37, the body of dried bones is brought to life by the Holy Spirit. In Joel 3, the Jews were taught to anticipate an incredible outpouring of the Holy Spirit to inaugurate the Messianic Age. This idea of overshadowing now. Let's take a look at this term "overshadow," epischiadze, a very Greek word, overshadowing. It's only used in very few places in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. For instance in Exodus 40, verses 34 and 35, we're told that Moses couldn't enter the tabernacle because the cloud, the shechena, was covering upon it, epischiadze, overshadowing it.
Now scholars have actually tracked down five other, ultimately five uses of the word epischiadze, and in every case, it's associated with liturgical functions. I have lots of notes here. I don't want to share all of them with you because it's going to get too pedantic. But this is something that scholars, not just Catholic scholars, but I have names who are Lutheran and Anglican, Presbyterian and so on, who all conclude that this verb indicates God's presence descending upon Mary as it descended upon the Ark of the Covenant on the tabernacle, on the creation in the beginning, the dove hovered over the waters after the flood; but never in the Old Testament did the Holy Spirit, shechena, hover or overshadow a person. It was always an object or a building that God had earmarked for sacred functions.
Parallel Between the Visitation and the Ark's Journey to Jerusalem
For the first time God's presence has descended upon a person as the new Ark of the Covenant. The conclusions that these scholars draw, then, is that God's Spirit is visiting his people again in a brand new way. It's exciting. Rene Laurentin in his two-volume work, Structure and Theology of Luke 1 and 2, pages 79 through 81 develops an expensive series of parallels here, especially concerning the story of the Visitation, you know, with Elizabeth. He speaks of the subtle use of ark imagery. For instance he shows how in 2nd Samuel 6, there was a journey to the hill country of Judah that the Ark of the Covenant took. Likewise, the same phrase is used to describe Mary's journey to the hill country. In fact, the same phrase is used. Both David and Mary, "arose and made the journey." In 2nd Samuel, 6:2 and Luke 1:39.
Laurentin goes on to describe how when the Ark arrived and when Mary arrived, they were both greeted with "shouts of joy." And the word for shout or the word for Elizabeth's greeting, anafametzen, is very rare. It's used only in connection with those Old Testament liturgical ceremonies that were centered around the Ark. It literally means to "cry aloud, to proclaim or to intone."
Elizabeth greets Mary the same way the Ark of the Covenant was greeted. The entrance of the Ark and the entrance of Mary are seen then as blessing an entire household. Like Obededom's household was blessed, so Elizabeth sees her household as blessed. Laurentin goes on to talk about how David and both Elizabeth react with awe, "How shall the Ark of the Lord come to me?" David says in 2nd Samuel, 6:9. And likewise Elizabeth says, "Why should the Mother of the Lord come to me?" The Ark of the Covenant and the Mother of our Lord are in a sense two ways of looking at the same reality which is becoming clearer and more personal with our Lady. Then finally, the Ark of the Covenant and Mary both remain in the respective houses for three months, 2nd Samuel 6:11 and Luke 1:56.
Has anybody here ever studied under Father David Michael Stanley up in Toronto? I mean he's retired now. He's one of the most widely traveled and respected Biblical scholars among the Jesuits. He has a masterful book. You've got to pick it up some day, if it comes back into print. It's actually a Biblical theology of Ignatian spiritual exercises, and in this I found a very interesting study that he does. He first accepts Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant, whom the Spirit overshadows. But then he argues further for a parallel that Luke intends to draw between Daniel 9. the most famous prophecy of the coming of the Messiah and Luke 1 and 2.
Parallel Between Daniel 9 and Luke 1&2
He shows how the following correlates. In Luke 1 and 2 we have the annunciation by Gabriel to Zechariah and six months later the annunciation by Gabriel to Mary, then nine months later Jesus is born, and thirty days later he is presented in the temple. You add up 180 days in the six months, 270 days in the nine months and the 40 days in the presentation and it adds up to 490, which is a very rare number that is found in one of the most memorable prophecies of the Old Testament, Daniel 9. Stanley suggests that Luke is once again giving a surplus value, a surplus meaning to those who are really willing to dig deep into the text to see all of the inspired meanings behind what God has done to inaugurate the New Covenant salvation in Christ and in his Blessed Mother.
This is the Ark of the Covenant. Now let's go back and conclude our time in Revelation 11 and 12. We have in Mary the Ark of the Covenant. We have in Mary the true tabernacle. We have in Mary a figure for the New Jerusalem because at the end of Revelation, how is the New Jerusalem described? As being a bride that is pure and yet also being a mother of God's children. Well, how is it that you could be at the same time virginally pure and maternally fruitful? It seems impossible for human nature, but not for Mary, not only in mothering Jesus, but in John 19 at the cross and also in Revelation 12 where we read at the very end of the chapter, verse 17, we discover that Mary becomes by grace the mother of all of God's children.
It says in 17, "And the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus." We have, I believe, in John's vision something that he must have pondered for days, weeks and perhaps months and years. Here is the only apostle who had the courage in his youth, perhaps, not to run away. Maybe if Peter had stood at the foot of the cross, he would have been entrusted with Mary, maybe James. But, no, in this case it ended up being John, the only disciple who had courage enough to stand there at the foot of the cross to comfort and to stand by Mary and to be with our Lord in his agony.
And for it, he was rewarded with the Blessed Virgin Mary as his own mother; "Behold your son," and the beloved disciple, "Behold your mother." John recognizes two things. He recognizes that he himself as the beloved disciple is merely a symbol of all of Christ's disciples who are equally beloved. But he also recognized, I'll bet, as he took Mary to his own home that very hour, it says in John 19, I mean, can you imagine living with Mary after the crucifixion, after the resurrection after the ascension? She is now your mother. She is living in your home. What do you think you would do?
I don't know about you, but, you know, do you think you'd just basically sit there in kind of monastic solitude and quietude? "Please pass the butter, milk. Let's pray. Have a good day?" No way. What would you do? I'll bet it's something like I would do. You'd say, "What was he like when he was just two? You know, when you lost him for three days, how did Joseph respond? What was it like teaching him how to pray? When you first heard him say, 'Our Father,' what was that like? What did he teach you about loving neighbors who cannot love others?"
I mean you'd just want to tap into the immeasurable depths of her spiritual experiences with the second person of the Godhead, her creator, her firstborn boy. And she's now your stepmother and you're caring for her for days, weeks, months and years, pondering and reflecting over what she has pondered and reflected on. You'd talk about infinite oceans of in-depth wisdom. Our Lady is seat of wisdom, sedae sapientia. John is the one who is the most spiritual of all the apostles. I mean he was one of the sons of thunder and he internalized all that thunder so that there would be a kind of thunderous contemplative insight that would illuminate his soul to see down to the depths of the real significance of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the real significance of this New Covenant family that Christ instituted with his own spirit and with his own body and blood. And he's the one who for us is putting it all together.
He doesn't just spell it out like you might read in the front page of the New York Times, he's putting it there, though, for people who want to roll up their sleeves and just jump in and really work through it. He's putting it there for those who keep the commandments and their testimony to Jesus to read, to ponder, to reread, to pray through and then to rejoice, because she is the Ark of the Covenant. She is the power of David.
Earlier this morning I got into another motif that we don't even have time to develop, the Queen Mother. In the Old Testament nation of Israel when they had a kingdom, for hundreds of years, the Son of David always had enthroned at his right hand, the evidence suggests, his Queen Mother. No wonder the early Jewish Christians had no controversies about the emergence of Marian devotion. As soon as she went to be with the Lord, and by the way, there are no gravesites for Mary. I mean Peter's gravesite was venerated. A lot of other saints, when they die, when martyrs are put to death, the spot where they are killed or where they are buried becomes a place for pilgrimage and veneration. No such place for Mary.
There are all kinds of stories that were kind of wild and fanciful about how she was assumed and so on, but nowhere does there ever emerge a story about where she died, where she was buried and where her body decomposed or where people made pilgrimages to. That kind of silence is loud, isn't it? The early Church began to discover what the Beloved Disciple must have just pondered for the rest of his life with gratitude and with joy.
In Isaiah 62 we read in verse 11 about daughter Zion who is vindicated and glorified by God, "for as a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons, daughter Zion, marry you." Think about that. Kind of an odd image, isn't it? Daughter Zion is God's daughter. "As a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons marry you." I mean, you talk about an Oedipus complex, what is going on here? "Your sons, daughter Zion, marry you." The Blessed Virgin Mary is Christ's daughter because he is her creator, but he creates her to be his mother. But then, after he bestows his glory upon her and calls her to himself and makes her the Queen Mother of all, he fashions the New Jerusalem after her as the blueprint. She becomes the bride of Christ.
No wonder he calls her "woman." He can't decide. "Are you my daughter? Are you my mother or are you my bride?" Praise the Lord! This represents the answer of the Church to feminism, to radical feminism. I mean let's face it, radical movements almost always represent the unpaid bills of the Church, certain gaps, certain lacks of emphases where we need to compensate, then we overcompensate and over exaggerate or whatever, certain truths.
Marian Dogmas and Doctrines Give Truths our Culture Needs
The fact is the Marian dogmas and the devotions to our Lady show to us some fundamental truths that our culture and our century are dying to hear. We need to know. Women and men especially need to hear the fact that God has established in a woman at once the infinite value of virginity and maternity. You might say, "Well, how frustrating." No. Whatever you are as a woman, you can participate in the gift of God's glory and grace to the Blessed Virgin Mary. If she is our mother, what mother receives all kinds of riches and glory and then says, "No, that's not for you. That's just for me?" No way. I mean even mediocre moms love to give it all to their kids. How much more the best and most perfect mother of all?
When Jesus says, "Who is my brother? Who is my sister and my mother? Those who keep the commandments of God." He is not saying, "Mary is so qualitatively and quantitatively superior to you that you're lucky to look at her." He's not saying that. He's saying that what I gave to her I want to give to all of you. I want to make you my brothers and my sisters. I want to make you my children. I want to make you my bride.
She is proof positive that Christ is capable of taking dirty, rotten scoundrels like us and save us from sin, from selfishness, from injustice and ignorance and all kinds of things that we get addicted to. So it is, we can say to the world around us, that the Christian faith, the Catholic religion proves to us that women are not inferior. Women are not inferior. Women are different than men and vive la differance, but that difference is the key to understanding our redemption. Above every president, every premier, every commander-in- chief, every Caesar, every king that has ever lived stands, or I should say sits enthroned a woman. Above her is only the God-man.
The highest human person in human history is a woman and a mother, and our culture doesn't like maternity sometimes, and a virgin, and our culture doesn't like a virgin sometimes. We have a message of the greatest liberation of all. Whatever we are, we are always God's children. We are God's siblings, and we can even be God's spouse. And Mary leads the way, and it's all the work of Christ. He doesn't transform her into a man or make her neuter or make her some desexed angel. She is glorified as woman, as mother and virgin over all humans. But not in a way that just leaves us just choking in the dust, but rather in a way in which she just kind of carries us all along up with her in the train of glory.
Let's stop and pray and ask her Son to help us to see and to live it, and then ask her to bless us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Lord Jesus Christ, hallelujah, we thank you for taking a woman and making her your daughter and your mother and your bride. She is one of us. She's like us. She is not a person in the Trinity. She is a human person, Lord, and we have confidence now like never before that your plan of salvation can never fail but will only succeed ever more gloriously. In your grace and your spirit come to us through her and inspire us to imitate her as she obeys and follows you. Help us to obey her as she tells us to do whatever you tell us to do and help us to enter with all propriety and with all truth and with all balance into the deepest devotion to her that will please you the most, for Lord, we only wish to imitate you as you bestow honor and glory upon your mother in obedience to your Father's law.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Our Lady, Ark of the Covenant, pray for us. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Thank you very much.
One slight correction: I mentioned mistakenly that epischiaze is used only five times and always with reference to the Ark. It's not. It's used more than five times, not always with reference to the Ark. I was thinking of the work anaphenatzen, which is used only in connection with those Old Testament liturgical ceremonies that are associated with the Ark and there are five specific passages that Laurentin studied with regard to that word for Elizabeth's greeting, where she shouts with joy. So I just want to make that correction because sometimes little mistakes like that can mislead people. I also want to make mention of a key work that I don't have with me but I have at home. It's a doctoral dissertation done at a Pontifical Institute in Rome by Father Bernard LeFoix entitled, The Woman Clothed with the Sun. This dissertation has been published and distributed widely. It's out of print now, but it's in probably thousands of college and seminary libraries and perhaps other places that you might find. It's very readable, surprisingly so for a doctoral dissertation, much more readable than my dissertation will probably end up being. So, if you are interested in pursuing this further, Bernard LeFoix', Ph.D's dissertation is entitled, The Woman Clothed with the Sun.
Now, I also wanted to ask, actually I should say, address a question that was asked of me about two minutes after the break began and that is, "Where do we find specific examples of Mary as Ark of the Covenant in the early Church?" I have this little pamphlet from the Marian library studies by Dom Capelli entitled, Marian Typology in the Proverbs and in the Liturgy. I'm going to go ahead and spend the next 65 minutes reading the entire thing to you. No, I won't, but read to you like three paragraphs that are short.
It talks about the Feast of the Assumption where Mary is often greeted with the title Ark of the Covenant, a very clear illusion to the Ark of the Covenant in the ancient temple. It goes on, "Ark of imperishable wood containing the manna, is a phrase that is taken from an ancient liturgy for the feast of the Assumption. This application of the Ark of the Covenant to the Blessed Virgin is very ancient. We find that already at the beginning of the 3rd Century in the writings of Hippolitus of Rome."
"The Lord was all sinless, for as man being the work of the Holy Spirit and of the Blessed Virgin, he was made of incorruptible wood, both within and without."
"The Marian interpretation of the Ark of the Covenant was, as one can see, well thought out. It will continue to be used from then on. We find it in Antioch by the 5th Century in the writings of the Patriarch Severus who fits it into its entire context. He sees the Blessed Virgin signified by the Holy of Holies precisely because she contains the Ark of the Covenant made of incorruptible wood, etc."
"The image will take on new vitality in Christian literature by reason of its correspondence with the Psalm verse from Psalm 132, 'Arise, O Lord, to the place of your rest, you and the ark of your holiness.'" Then it goes on citing some other references, "During the same era Chrysofus of Jerusalem likewise commented on the versicle according to the same sense, 'Mary is the Ark, not of Noah nor yet the one that contained the tables of stone, but that which bore him whom nothing can contain. In her womb he found the repose of which the psalm verse speaks, 'And when he shall rise, the ark of his majesty will rise with him.'"
It goes on talking about some other examples, too, but I'll leave this up here if anybody is interested, and it cites several instances of where that material is found. I don't just want to say I'll give you something and then not give it and so I appreciated the question. There's one other question and that is, "Does this interpretation allow for the common view that the 'woman clothed with the sun' is either Old Testament Israel or the New Testament Church?" And yes, it allows for the view. In fact there's a polyvalence, a multiple fulfillment of images in the Book of Revelation that allows for this kind of multiple application. So, for instance, we know that the woman who flees into the wilderness does not directly correspond to any biographical details of Mary in the gospels and the birth pangs seem to be figurative as well.
It seems as though John with a spiritual vision sees in our Lady at once the perfection of Old Testament Israel realized and an anticipation of the New Covenant Church in its anticipated glory. And so with a kind of spiritual freedom, he is able to apply things to that woman much like he does to Satan. I mean Satan, a dragon with seven heads? Well, that's probably a figure of speech. It's probably not what he actually looks like if you brought your Kodak down to hell and could see the snapshot. All right. So these kinds of figures are in a very enlightening way without some 20th Century flat literary correspondence, one for one. It's more artistry than science. So, he does allow for a variety of interpretations in terms of Old Testament Israel, Jerusalem and the New Covenant Church. And I want to encourage you to take up any of those if you want to explore those interpretive meanings as well.
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