The Virgin Mary, the New Ark of the Covenant, is fittingly taken to the dwelling place of the Most High.
If I’m being honest, Harrison Ford introduced me to the Ark of the Covenant. Playing the heroic archeologist Indiana Jones, Ford’s quest to retrieve the long-lost artifact of Israel brought this venerable object to the attention of America’s Gen-Z and millennials devoted to the Indiana Jones films.
What is the Ark?
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the ancient vessel is believed to be a weapon of unparalleled destruction. An Egyptian excavator accompanying Indiana Jones describes the Ark saying, “The Ark. If it is there, at Tanis, then it is something that man was not meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this earth.” Opening the Ark in the film causes all those who gaze upon it to die.
The Ark of the Covenant was a golden box, fabricated by Moses to transport the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. The Ark was decorated with cherubim and carried by poles that were slipped into rings on either side (Exod 25). The New Testament Book of Hebrews reports, “In it were the gold jar containing the manna, the staff of Aaron that had sprouted, and the tablets of the covenant” (Heb 9:4).
Perhaps the film’s depiction of the Ark is rooted in the account from 2 Samuel which recounts the transportation of the Ark to Jerusalem. David, king of Israel, led a grand procession. The book of 2 Samuel says, “As they reached the threshing floor of Nodan, Uzzah stretched out his hand to the ark of God and steadied it, for the oxen were tipping it. Then the Lord became angry with Uzzah; God struck him on that spot, and he died there in God’s presence” (2 Sam 6:6-7). The Levites had been commanded by God not to touch the Ark, under penalty of death.
Ark of the Covenant, title of Mary
My favorite litany in honor of the Blessed Mother, the Litany of Loreto, is a beautiful and ancient collection of titles of Mary. I came to love this litany because as novices we sang it every Saturday evening. As we knelt in a candlelit corridor in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother, name after name of Mary cascaded over our bowed heads.
When I first heard the litany sung, some of the titles were familiar to me and made immediate sense. The easily recognizable phrases “Mother of Christ,” “Mother of Mercy.” and “Mother of the Church” were paired with others that required some investigation and reflection. Among the latter category I discovered the title “Foederis arca” (Ark of the Covenant).
The new Ark of the Covenant
Why is the Virgin Mary hailed as the Ark of the Covenant? When the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the temple, the cloud of God’s presence settled there. The Virgin Mary became in her own flesh, the dwelling place of God. Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, she carried the Word, who himself would be the new manna, the high priest, and the new lawgiver.
One Church Father, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, writes,
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 [Ark of the New] 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.
The Virgin Mary, preserved from the stain of sin in view of Christ’s conception, is like the Ark. The Bible clearly describes the Ark’s construction, revealing its importance for Israel (Exod 25:9, 39:42-43). The Lord’s exact commands for building and caring for the Ark had to be followed. It must be pristine and worthy. So too, argues the Church, is the Virgin Mary. She who is without spot or blemish is made by God’s grace a worthy mother.
The Ark and the Assumption of Mary
The Temple, the sacred place of Israel’s worship and the dwelling place of God, is no longer. When the Temple was destroyed, the Ark of the Covenant was lost. But there is a new dwelling place of God. Jesus, after his resurrection, ascended into heaven. The Lord sits in heaven “at the right hand of the Father.”
The Virgin Mary, the new Ark of the Covenant, could not be separated from the dwelling place of the Most High. Just as Israel longed to carry the Ark to the holy city, where it could be placed in the temple, the new Ark must be taken to the presence of God.
She who bore the presence of God into the world would herself be taken into His presence once and for all.