5 Mon Feb 2018
ark of the covenant
11 Thu Feb 2010
One of the Dominican friars was being interviewed by a student newspaper in Edinburgh, and he was asked, ‘How would you like to be remembered?’ And he answered, quite simply, ‘I don’t want to be remembered. I want to be resurrected.’ The remembering of our dead is the best a world that does not know Christ can muster. The pagans set up memorials, because the only thing you can leave the world is the memory of you before you depart to join the world of wraiths and shadows. Even today, people will say things like, ‘Our dead loved ones will live on in our memories.’ If that’s true, then they are the most pitiable – because the half-life they endure is dependent on our vague and muddled remembering.
Christ is no shadow, no wraith or ghost. He says to his disciples, ‘Handle me and see, a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ That is why we do not have relics of Christ himself, but only of things which came into contact with him: his burial cloths, the nails, the crown of thorns and the other implements of his passion and death. But the same is true of Our Lady. The early Christians, who avidly collected the bones and blood of the martyrs – the way we moderns might seek out a piece of the Berlin wall on eBay – the same early Christians never claimed to have a relic of the body of Mary. Instead they said that Our Lady was no longer on the earth, certainly not in her spirit, but not in her body either. Collecting the relics of saints and martyrs makes a lot of sense, far more sense indeed, than collecting pieces of the Berlin wall or signatures of so-called celebrities. The real celebrities, that is, those who ought to be celebrated, are the saints of Christ.
And when we celebrate Our Lady, we do not celebrate a memory. Mary is not a shadow. She is complete; she is alive and not dead, by the power of the Resurrection of her Son. She is risen too.
In his Gospel, Luke presents Mary as a box. To be precise, he portrays Mary as the ark of the covenant, as that box-like container which held the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone – famously depicted in the first Indiana Jones film.
The ark held three things (Hebrews 9.4), which are all symbols of Jesus. First, the Ten Commandments, on 2 stone tablets, the foundation of God’s covenant with his people. But Jesus however is the mediator of the new and eternal covenant (Hebrews 9.15). Second, it held manna, the bread from heaven with which God fed his people in the desert. But Jesus is the true and living bread from heaven (John 6.48-50). Third, it contained Aaron’s staff which budded and flowered, a symbol of Aaron being chosen as priest. But Jesus is the great High Priest, the Shoot sprouting from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11.1). Just as the contents of the ark prefigure Jesus, so the ark itself prefigures Mary. The ark contained the old covenant, but in her womb Mary carried the New Covenant.
Just as the ark was overshadowed by the divine glory (Exodus 40.34), so Mary is overshadowed by the ‘power of the Most High’ (Luke 1.35). King David leapt and danced before the ark when it came to him (2 Samuel 6.12-6), and likewise John the Baptist leaps in his mother Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s greeting (Luke 1.44). The old ark stayed for three months at the house of Obed-Edom, causing an increased fertility in that family (2 Samuel 6.11). Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months (Luke 1.56), and Mary’s pregnancy is the reason for Elizabeth herself having conceived. Faced with the ark, David said, ‘Who am I that the ark of the Lord should come to me?’ (2 Samuel 6.9). Likewise Elizabeth tells Mary, ‘Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’ (Luke 1.43). And finally, to cap it all, the first reading shows the ark in heaven, juxtaposed with the woman clothed with the sun, the woman who gives birth to the Word of God. Mary then is truly the new ark, the ark of the new and eternal covenant.
What happened to the original ark is a mystery. The psalms and Jeremiah know it is lost, and prophesies that it will be superseded with the coming of the Messiah (Jeremiah 3.16). A later legend has Jeremiah hiding the ark at Mount Nebo (2 Maccabees 2.4-8). Its loss is a great blow to the people of Israel, for the ark was the guarantee of the special presence of God with his people. Where the ark was, God was present there in a special way.
In Jesus, God is present in a truly special way. Because Jesus is God-made-man, and so in Mary, the ark of the new covenant, God is fully present in space and time. Mary is the guarantee of the truth that God has become a human being, that God is present to his people – and this time forever. Since the covenant of our salvation is eternal, it is fitting that the ark of this new covenant should not be lost as the old one was. The book of Revelation shows Mary associated with celestial powers: clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, crowned with twelve stars. They represent an abiding testimony to heavenly realities; placed in the sky they act as witnesses forever to God’s eternal faithfulness. Just as they never pass away, Our Lady also now endures forever. Mary is adorned with them because she, as the new ark, is removed from the caprices and changeability of the earth, and placed as a celestial witness of the fulfilment of God’s faithfulness to his covenant.
It is interesting that St Bernadette, who saw Our Lady, always described her as a young girl, alive and beautiful.
Mary, through Christ the first fruits, has been glorified, made fully alive through the power of his resurrection. We, the other children of the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12.17), who belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 15.23), await his coming again in glory. He has not allowed this ark to be lost or destroyed, because the covenant of this second ark lasts forever. God has prepared a place of rest for the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12.6). And more than that, as both John’s gospel and the book of Revelation make clear, we Christians are given Mary as our mother – a living, bodily mother, and not a ghost or a spirit, not a memory but a resurrected woman. If, in the bible, God – through his angels and saints – praises Mary, how can we do any less, especially when He has given her to us, that we might hope still more? Hope with sure conviction, that we too will share in Christ’s resurrection.