In the previous post in our ongoing discussion of the Ark of the Covenant, we discussed the Infancy Gospel of James. In this post we will take a look at another work that the Church values and which is represented in the life of the Church through the Feast of the Dormition, which we will discuss in a later post. As we have discussed, the Church most frequently sees the Ark as a type of the Holy Virgin.
The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God is an apocryphal account of the dormition from a collection of writings known as the Transitus Mariae. Some scholars believe this collection to have been written in the late fourth or early fifth century,1 other sources place it in the second or third century.2 As with the Infancy Gospel of James, its apocryphal status does not mean that it is not a document of significant value. If nothing else, it is a good indicator of traditions in existence at the supposed time of its composition, as early as the second century. Incorporation of events it describes into the iconography affirms the value of its content.
The account tells of how the Apostles were brought together with the Mother of God at the time of her death and how her Son came to personally escort her soul into the heavens. After her soul had departed, the Apostles took up her body on a couch and carried it.
And, behold, while they were carrying her, a certain well-born Hebrew, Jephonias by name, running against the body, put his hands upon the couch; and, behold, an angel of the Lord by invisible power, with a sword of fire, cut off his two hands from his shoulders, and made them hang about the couch, lifted up in the air.3
This story has been compared to that of Uzzah. As mentioned above, when Uzzah reached out and touched the Ark, he was instantly killed. Another parallel exists between Jephonias and the idol of Dagon where the Ark was kept by the Philistines. During the second night of the Ark’s presence in Dagon’s temple, the idol of Dagon fell down and its hands were broken off (1 Samuel 5:4). It is notable that this event ended in a happy way, for, “at the word of Peter, the hands hanging by the couch of the Lady came, and were fixed on Jephonias. And he believed, and glorified Christ, God who had been born of her.”4
If you look closely at the icon, you can see Jephonias under the Holy Virgin with his hands floating about in the air, cut off by the sword the angel on the left is holding. The small white child being held by Christ is the Holy Virgin herself born again into the new life in Christ.
As with the Infancy Gospel of James, this gospel is not explicit about the typology of the Ark, but it is compatible with the hypothetical existence of such a tradition in the second century.
In our next post, we will begin a more lengthy series of twelve posts about the patristic witness to the Church’s understanding of the Ark of the Covenant. We will be examining what twelve of the Holy Fathers have to say about the Ark.
1 George Reid, Apocrypha, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907).
2 Pope John Paul II, General Audience; Wednesday, 2 July 1997.
3 Translated by Alexander Walker, The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God, From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, Ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886), Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.