By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
In my first article written for The Wanderer, I mentioned the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, in order to encourage Catholics to seek and rediscover the Lost Art of Catholic Apologetics. In this article I’d like to investigate the symbolism of the Ark of the Covenant in regard to the Blessed Virgin Mary from the viewpoint of her perpetual virginity.
All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed is an outstanding work of biblical Mariology by the great scholar Fr. Stefano Manelli, cofounder of the Franciscans of the Immaculate. He wrote:
“Of all the Marian symbols in the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant enjoys pre-eminence. In the 4th century, St. Ambrose and St. Ephraem called Her ‘Ark’ and Richard of St. Victor (1073) called Her Foederis Arca, the Ark of the Covenant. The similarities are simply outstanding. What the Ark meant in symbol, in prefigure, Mary is in reality. But the original Ark was only a symbol. In Mary, God was really present, so much so as to become Her Son. That typology brought the early Christians to consider Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant.”
So, what the Hebrews had in figure, the Church has in reality. The Ark was so sacred among the Hebrews that they went so far as to refer to it as God Himself (Num. 10:33-36). For instance:
“So they marched from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey, and the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord went before them, for three days providing for a place for the camp. The cloud also of the Lord was over them by day when they marched. And when the Ark was lifted up, Moses said: ‘Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered and let them that hate thee flee before thy face.’ And when it was set down, he said: ‘Return, O Lord, to the multitude of the host of Israel’.”
David, the Royal Prophet, echoes Moses’ words: “Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the ark, which thou hast sanctified” (Psalm 131:8).
What was the Ark made of? The Book of Exodus, chapter 25, tells us that God commanded Moses to: “Frame an ark of setim wood. . . . And you shall overlay it with the purest gold, within and without.”
Now setim is an incorruptible wood and gold is the symbol of purity — purest gold. The Ark of the Covenant carried within itself the Word of God in stone. The Blessed Virgin Mary carried within herself the Word of God made Flesh — she is the Ark of the New Covenant, the dwelling place of God among men, just as the old Ark was the dwelling place par excellence of God’s presence.
On the day of the Incarnation, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). When Mary said “fiat” to the angel, God became incarnate in her and she became the dwelling place of God among men — the Ark of the New Covenant.
From the Trinitarian perspective, the Ark of the Covenant was the dwelling place of God the Father among men; the Blessed Virgin Mary was the dwelling place of God the Son among men; the Catholic Church, the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, is the dwelling place of God the Holy Spirit among men.
We see a similar situation in the Book of the Apocalypse:
“And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice saying, Behold the tabernacle [dwelling] of God with men, and he will dwell with them” (Apoc. 21:2-3). This dwelling, this city, like the Ark, “Was pure gold” (Apoc. 21:18).
A most important aspect about the purity of the golden Ark was that no man was allowed to touch it.
The priests carried the Ark during the crossing of the river Jordan and around the city of Jericho. But only one man was allowed into the Holy of Holies, once a year, on the Day of Atonement: the High Priest.
The Epistle to the Hebrews refers to Jesus as our High Priest — “for it was fitting that we should have such a High Priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” (Heb. 7:26).
Only that High Priest, her only Son and God, dwelt within her sacred womb.
The Levites carried the Ark but never touched it. “David said, no one ought to carry the Ark of God, but the Levites, whom the Lord has chosen to carry it, and to minister unto himself for ever.” The Levites placed poles through the rings and carried it from place to place. They knew that anyone who touched the Ark would die.
When the Ark was taken by the Philistines, its very presence among them caused havoc — they died by the thousands. The Philistines had to touch the Ark in order to carry it away and especially to see what was inside of it. And those who touched it, died. Plague came over them, mice, disease, death. Fifty thousand Philistines were killed before they quickly realized that to take the Ark from the Hebrews was a bad idea. They promptly returned it to them.
Read the whole story in 1 Samuel 5 or 1 Kings 5 in the Douay-Rheims. The point I am making here is that no man was allowed to touch the Ark.
But that prohibition of not touching the Ark was not made to Gentiles only: Hebrews could not touch it, either. And he who did, died on the spot. Here is the story:
“And David arose and went, with all the people that were with him of the chosen men of Judah, to fetch the Ark of God, upon which the name of the Lord of hosts is invoked, who sits over it upon the cherubims. And they laid the Ark of God upon a new cart: and took it out of the house of Abinadab, who was in Gabaa. And Oza and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, drove the new cart…and when they came to the floor of Nachon, Oza put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it: because the oxen kicked and made it lean aside. And the indignation of the Lord was enkindled against Oza and he struck him for his rashness: and he died there before the Ark of the Lord” (2 Kings 6).
No man was allowed to touch the Ark. We do not know Oza’s intentions in touching it, but although we may surmise that he wanted to prevent it from falling out of the oxcart, the fact remains that he disobeyed God’s order — and no man is allowed touch the Ark!
But St. Joseph was a man; he lived with the Ark of the New Covenant under the same roof for over 20 years, and was not struck dead by God. Why? Simple: He never touched the Ark as a husband is wont to touch his wife.
Haven’t we noticed our Lady’s freedom to move during the Passion? She was protected by God’s Providence, and no man ever touched her.
The Ark of the Covenant carried within it the Word of God carved in stone. The Blessed Virgin Mary carried within her the Word of God made Flesh — she is the Ark of the New Covenant, the dwelling place of God among men. And no man ever touched the Ark.
Next article: The faith of the Early Christians on Mary’s virginity.
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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI], president of the Sacred Heart Institute and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is: www.RaymondeSouza.com.)