- To see how Mary’s visit to Elizabeth parallels David’s bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.
- To understand how the book of Revelation uses the startling image of the rediscovered Ark of the Covenant to introduce a vision of the Mother of Christ.
- To understand why the New Testament writers see Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant.
III. The Visitation
I. The Annunciation
A. How Can This Be?
Of all the Gospel writers, Luke gives us by far the most information about Mary. Most of that information is simple and literal: the stories of the Annunciation, the Nativity, and so on. But some of what Luke has to tell us is conveyed in a less obvious way, by means of parallels in words and images.
In the first lesson, we looked at the story of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary to tell her that she would conceive a child who would inherit the throne of David.
Naturally, Mary was surprised. She asked the obvious question: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (see Luke 1:34).
Gabriel replied that it would happen by the power of God: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (see Luke 1:35).
B. The Power of the Most High will Overshadow You
The word translated “overshadow” is used nowhere else in the New Testament. In fact, it occurs only one other place in Scripture, if we refer to the Greek translation of the Old Testament that Luke was familiar with.
The book of Exodus tells us how Moses had the Ark of the Covenant placed in the Dwelling, the holy place in great tent that was to serve as the dwelling-place of God among His people. (The word translated “Dwelling” is often translated “Tabernacle.”)
“Then the cloud covered the meeting tent, and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling. Moses could not enter the meeting tent, because the cloud settled down upon it and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling” (see Exodus 40:34-35).
In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the word translated “settled down upon” (“the cloud settled down upon it”) is the same as Luke’s word “overshadow” (“the power of the Most High will overshadow you”).
Luke is telling us that the power of God will overshadow Mary just as the power of Godovershadowed the Ark of the Covenant in the tent.
II. A History of the Ark
A. God’s Presence among His People
On Mt. Sinai, God gave Moses instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant. The construction is minutely described (see Exodus 25:1-22). The Ark’s most important contents are the tablets of the Law (see Exodus 25:16), God’s covenant with His people. It also contained a sample of the manna that fed the Israelites in the desert (see Exodus 16:14-16) and the rod of Aaron the priest.
The Ark, with its carved cherubim on top (see Exodus 25:18-20), was the visible throne of the invisible God. Once it was built, it went before the Israelites wherever they wandered, signifying God’s presence with them (see, for example, Numbers 10:33).
When the Israelites marched to conquer the Promised Land, the Ark of the Covenant still marched before them (see Joshua 3:3-4). It was the sign that God was with His people.
In the siege of Jericho, for example, Israel’s only military action was to parade the Ark of the Covenant around the city on seven successive days: the walls miraculously fell flat by themselves (see Joshua 6).
B. David Brings the Ark to Jerusalem
Long after most of the Promised Land belonged to Israel, the town of Jerusalem was still an independent enclave of Jebusites (see Joshua 15:63).
When David finally conquered Jerusalem, he made the strategically placed fortress town his capital (see 2 Samuel 5:9). Once the newly expanded city was established as the capital of Israel, David decided to give the Ark of the Covenant a permanent home there.
“And David arose and went with all the people who were with him to Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:2, Revised Standard Version; compare the New American Bible translation).
The Ark of the Covenant was placed on a new cart (contrary to the instructions for carrying it given in Exodus 25:13-15, and compare 1 Chronicles 15:15). But the cart was unstable, and one of the attendants reached out to steady the Ark (another clear violation of the Law – see Numbers 4:15). He was struck dead immediately.
David was dismayed, and in awe of the power of God. “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” he asked (see 2 Samuel 6:9).
The procession turned aside, and the Ark “remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months” (see 2 Samuel 6:11), bringing great blessing to Obed-Edom’s whole household.
Finally, David did bring the Ark into Jerusalem the proper way, amid great festivity and rejoicing. David himself went “leaping and dancing” for joy before the Ark, making such a spectacle of himself that his snobbish wife turned up her nose at him (see 2 Samuel 6:14-16).
C. Lost Forever?
The small empire built up by David and expanded by his son Solomon broke up after Solomon died (see 1 Kings 12). The two small kingdoms of Israel and Judah could not stand up against the great world powers. First Israel fell to Assyria (see 2 Kings 17:1-6); then Judah fell to Babylon (see 2 Kings 25).
The prophet Jeremiah had warned the people of Judah that God’s judgment was coming upon them. But he had also predicted a time when God would build up His people again and make a “new covenant” with them (see Jeremiah 31:27-34).
A story in 2 Maccabees 2:4-8 tells us that Jeremiah prepared for that time by hiding the Ark of the Covenant on Mount Nebo.
“The same document also tells how the prophet [Jeremiah], following a divine revelation, ordered that the tent and the ark should accompany him and how he went off to the mountain which Moses climbed to see God’s inheritance. When Jeremiah arrived there, he found a room in a cave in which he put the tent, the ark, and the altar of incense; then he blocked up the entrance.”
Since that time, the Ark has never been seen on earth again.
“Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the path, but they could not find it. When Jeremiah heard of this, he reproved them: ‘The place is to remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows them mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord will be seen in the cloud, just as it appeared in the time of Moses and when Solomon prayed that the Place [that is, the Temple] might be gloriously sanctified.’ “
The Ark would not be seen again until the time when God showed His mercy and gathered His people together again. But when would that be?
III. The Visitation
A. Elizabeth and Mary
The news that she would have a child was astonishing enough for Mary. But the angel Gabriel had more good news for her:
“And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God” (see Luke 1:36-37).
Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were both very old (see Luke 1:7); her pregnancy was nothing short of a miracle, though not a miracle on the same order as the one Mary was about to be a part of.
After this news, the very next thing we read is that Mary decided to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
We’re going to take a close look at this visit, because Luke will use it to show us a very important truth about Mary.
B. David’s Journey and Mary’s Visit
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:39-40, Revised Standard Version; compare the New American Bible translation).
We remember how “David arose and went” to a city of Judah to bring out the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:2, Revised Standard Version; compare the New American Bibletranslation).
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb” (see Luke 1:41).
In the same way, David “leaped and danced” before the Ark of the Covenant (see 2 Samuel 6:14-16).
When she felt her child leap in her womb, Luke tells us, Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (see Luke 1:41). “And how does this happen to me,” she asked, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (see Luke 1:43).
Her words almost repeat what David said about the Ark of the Covenant: “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” (see 2 Samuel 6:9).
Finally, after her glorious hymn of praise to God (which we know, from its first word in Latin, as the Magnificat; see Luke 1:46-55), “Mary remained with her [Elizabeth] about three months and then returned to her home” (see Luke 1:56).
The Ark of the Covenant “remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months” on its way to Jerusalem (see 2 Samuel 6:11).
Luke piles these parallels one on top of another, so that we can’t help noticing the similarity between the Ark of the Covenant’s trip to Jerusalem and Mary’s trip to Zechariah’s house.
To drive the point home even more, Luke makes an interesting word choice in Luke 1:42: he tells us that Elizabeth “cried out in a loud voice” when she expressed her joy at Mary’s arrival.
The word translated “cried out” occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. But it does occur five times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and every time it shows up in passages having to do with the Ark of the Covenant, describing the joyful noise God’s people made in celebration of His presence among them.
Elizabeth lifts up her voice in praise of God in the presence of Mary, just as her ancestors (Elizabeth was a Levite and a descendant of Aaron the priest; see Luke 1:5) did in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant.
All these parallels point to one startling truth: Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant.
In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant bore the tablets of God’s covenant, God’s word in stone. In the New Testament, Mary carries God’s Word in flesh, Jesus Christ, who will bring the New Covenant that Jeremiah foresaw so long ago (see Jeremiah 31:27-34)
IV. The Ark in Heaven
A. The Ark Reappears in Heaven
Luke uses parallel language and images to make his point. But John, the author of Revelation, tells us directly that he saw the Ark of the Covenant – the holy object that had been lost since Jeremiah’s time – in a vision.
“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a violent hailstorm. A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth” (see Revelation 11:19 and Revelation 12:1-2).
This is a strange string of images, almost overwhelming – like much of the book of Revelation. But certainly the statement that the Ark of the Covenant was visible must have caught the attention of the first people who heard the vision.
If the Ark had been seen, then the time Jeremiah spoke of must have come: the time when “God gathers his people together again and shows them mercy,” the time when “the glory of the Lord will be seen in the cloud, just as it appeared in the time of Moses” (see 2 Maccabees 7-8)
And indeed the sights and sounds are the same as in the time of Moses – storm and earthquake:
“There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a violent hailstorm” (see Revelation 11:19).
“On the morning of the third day there were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled . . . Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the LORD came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently” (see Exodus 19:16, 18)
Naturally, we want to hear more about the rediscovered Ark of the Covenant. And John goes on to describe what he sees: “a woman clothed with the sun” (see Revelation 12:1).
In our modern Bibles, there is a chapter division between the appearance of the Ark of the Covenant and the description of the “woman clothed with the sun.” But chapter divisions were added in the Middle Ages to make the books of the Bible easier to refer to. John did not make any divisions: he wrote straight through from Revelation 11:19 to Revelation 12:1without a break.
In the dream-like but deeply significant logic of John’s vision, the Ark of the Covenant is “a woman clothed with the sun.”
B. The Woman Clothed With the Sun
And who is this woman?
“She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth ” (see Revelation 12:2).
“She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne” (see Revelation 12:5).
The one destined to rule the nations with an iron rod (a shepherd’s rod) is the Lord’s Anointed, the Messiah or Christ (see Psalm 2). The “woman clothed with the sun,” whom John sees when he looks at the Ark of the Covenant, is the Mother of the Christ.
On the first Easter night He said that, “Everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled” (see Luke 24:44-45).
What He showed them was that the persons, places, things and events of the Old Testament were written to prepare us for Him.
Jesus and the Apostles were already familiar with this way of reading from the Old Testament and the liturgical readings they heard in the synagogue. In the writings of the prophets and psalmists, often we find typological readings of earlier events, deployed to prepare Israel for its coming savior.
He and others, notably Ezekiel and Jeremiah, spoke of the coming of a new Davidic shepherd-king and the restoration of the kingdom (see Isaiah 9:1-7; Jeremiah 23:5-6;Ezekiel 16:59-63; 34:24-30; 37:23-28).
The New Testament writers saw each these great “types” – creation, the exodus and the covenant-kingdom of David – gloriously reprised in the New Covenant of Jesus.
Jesus was the New Adam, the first born of a new creation (see Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; 45-49). His Cross and Resurrection mark a new exodus (see Luke 9:31; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4). His Church is the new Jerusalem and the new Kingdom of David (seeGalatians 4:26; Acts 1:6-9; 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6).
As we will see in the lessons ahead, the New Testament writers also developed a typological understanding of Mary’s role in salvation history – as the new Eve, the new Ark of the Covenant, and the new Queen Mother of the Kingdom of God.
What we will find is that Mary is depicted as mysteriously inseparable from the saving mission of her Son. We see this already in Matthew’s repetition of the phrase “the Child and His mother” (see Matthew 1:18; 2:11;13,14,20,21).
This is how Mary is portrayed in one of the earliest biblical confessions of the faith: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law to ransom those under the Law, so that we might receive adoption” (see Galatians 4:4-5).
What the New Testament has to say about Mary fills only a few verses. But it tells us all we need to know: Mary was made holy, destined from all eternity to give the Word flesh, to bear God’s only begotten Son, and to be crowned mother over all who enter into His kingdom.
C. What Makes Mary the Ark of the New Covenant?
The Ark of the Covenant was the sign of God’s real presence among His people. In Jesus Christ, born of Mary, God was really present among his people in an even more direct way.
The Ark held the Word of God written in stone. Mary bore the Word of God in flesh
The Ark contained the rod of Aaron, symbol of his priesthood. Mary bore Jesus Christ, our High Priest (see Hebrews 3:1).
If the Ark of the Covenant was holy, then by the same standards Mary is even holier. As Mother of God, she is the Ark of the New Covenant, bearing Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the Bread of Life, our great High Priest. That is not a re-interpretation of the Gospel: it is a truth made clear by the New Testament writers themselves.
V. Study Questions
- What important objects did the Ark of the Covenant contain?
- Who brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem?
- According to 2 Maccabees, on what mountain did Jeremiah hide the Ark?
- According to Jeremiah, when would the Ark of the Covenant be seen again?
- Of what famous priest was Elizabeth a descendant?
- What sights and sounds accompanied the reappearance of the Ark of the Covenant in John’s vision?
- What Old Testament event was accompanied by similar signs?
- Name at least three parallels between the Ark of the Covenant and Mary, the Mother of Christ.
For Personal Reflection
Wherever the ancient Israelites went, they followed the Ark of the Covenant. If Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant, how should we as Christians be following her?