The Ark: Conclusions

This is our final post in the series about how the Church views the Ark of the Covenant. In our previous post, we did some analysis on how the typology developed over time. Here I will share some thoughts on the implications of the fully developed typology. What does it mean?

As Robert Pirsig notes in the popular treatment of philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,

all you’ve got to work with is what you know. So your definition is made up of what you know. It’s an analogue to what you already know. It has to be. It can’t be anything else. And the mythos grows this way. By analogies to what is known before. The mythos is a building of analogues upon analogues upon analogues. These fill the collective consciousness of all communicating mankind. Every last bit of it.1

This mythos underlies the fabric of human consciousness. In the case of the nation of Israel, the relics and stories of the Old Testament formed a large component of the mythos that was woven into the collective consciousness. God, as the author of history, often writes history in such a way that it develops within the mythos the things that will be necessary to help understand and articulate what is to come. This mythos, as the collection of what early Jewish Christians knew, formed the basis of new definitions and a deepening articulation of the gospel in the patristic age.

But typology is more than just a method of definition. I suggest that typology is akin to what C. S. Lewis calls myth. Lewis believed that myth is somewhere between the intellectual and the purely experiential. In traditional usage, memory and imagination are aspects of abstract intellectual thought. Unseen Warfare explains that “imagination is a power of the soul such that, by its very nature, it has no capacity for entering the realm of union with God.”2 It follows that purely intellectual endeavors have no capacity for entrance into a direct experience of God. On the other hand, pure experience does not bring understanding. Lewis advocated myth as a partial solution to this problem. He posited that, “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”3 In a sense myth, and perhaps typology, can be seen to bridge the spiritual and the intellectual.

This way of defining what the Holy Virgin is is a tool to help us understand, not only on an intellectual level, but on a spiritual level as well. Likewise, though the Church emphasizes it less, talking about the Ark as a type of Christ teaches us certain things about Christ on both a spiritual and intellectual level. Neither typology is wrong per se, but the Church, in her wisdom, has chosen to emphasize the Ark as a type of the Theotokos.

The understanding conveyed by typology cannot be obtained through an intellectual discourse such is this. We can certainly discuss aspects of its meaning, but it must be experienced. Perhaps the best place to begin an experience of this typology is participation in the feasts of the Church. As Saint Jerome extended the metaphor of the Ark to the monastic life, the late Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko extended the metaphor to everyone.  In his discussion of the feasts he explains:

Thus, the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is the feast which celebrates the end of the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. When the child Mary enters the temple, the time of the temple comes to an end and the “preview of the good will of God” is shown forth. On this feast we celebrate-in the person of Christ’s mother-that we too are the house and tabernacle of the Lord.4


1 Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, (New York, NY: HarperTorch, 2006), Ch. 28.

2Lorenzo Scupoli, ‘Unseen Warfare,’ trans. E. Kadloubovsky & G. E. H. Palmer (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1987), p. 148.

3 S. Lewis, ‘Myth Became Fact’.

4 Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, volume 2, (https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-church-year/entrance-of-the-theotokos-to-the-temple).

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The Ark: Typological Development

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Iconography in the Apse of Holy Theophany Church in Colorado Springs.

We are beginning to wrap up our ongoing discussion of how the Church views the Ark of the Covenant. We have covered many concrete examples and are now embarking on some analysis of what we have learned.

We have traced how the people of God have understood the ark from its very beginning to its contemporary expression within the Church. We have examined how the Ark was built and we followed its life in Israel up until its disappearance. Subsequently, we examined possible midrashic traditions latent in Scripture that typologically identify the Ark with the Holy Virgin. We examined so-called apocryphal literature that provides useful clues. We traced the great conversation of the Holy Fathers on this topic through the first seven centuries. And finally, we examined the expression of the Ark’s typology in the life of the Church: its iconography, services, and hymnology.

In this particular case study, and perhaps others, we find a distinct pattern. First, the subject of typological interest comes into existence. In our case, the Ark is explicitly “spec’d out” by God himself and is then constructed under the guidance of the Prophet Moses. The Ark gains a certain mystique throughout its developing life among the people of Israel, becoming a key emblem or meme in the mythos of the nation of Israel. Whether we are talking about a physical artifact such as the Ark or a story such as Abraham’s hospitality to his three visitors (a topic for an upcoming series of posts), the type follows this same path.

The next step is the Gospel. Saint Paul alludes to the application of forward looking typology to the Old Testament, saying, “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect” (Hebrews 10:1). In our specific case, it is affirmed by Saint John Damascene as noted earlier. The Gospel becomes the lens that we use to interpret the ancient types, but the interpretation does not necessarily become clear immediately, as in our case.

Clearly, given the fact that accounts of the Gospel and other contemporaneous events were recorded significantly later, either an oral tradition or long lost documents carry the stories forward in time until they are written down. Interpretations may grow organically within this mix, as hypothesized by Laurentin and others, influencing the recording of Scripture and other writings.

We begin to truly see the application of typology surface in the writings of the Holy Fathers, where it develops through the centuries. As the present author might observe from a similar study of the typology attached to the story of the Hospitality of Abraham, a turning point in the application of the typology seems to sometimes occur during the third or fourth centuries. It is probably not coincidental that this was a time of great upheaval and development within the church, owing to the occurrence of many heresies and the refining of doctrinal articulation that was carried out by the great ecumenical councils. In our case we see a transition from a clearly Christocentric typology of the Ark to its identification with the Holy Virgin Mary (the shift seems to happen somewhere between Saint Dionysius and Saint Athanasius). While both typological traditions may have coexisted from very early times, the Church shifted emphasis from one to the other as its understanding deepened.

The title Theotokos is not truly rooted in Mariology, but in Christology. It does honor to the Theotokos by recognizing her role in the incarnation, but she is called the God Bearer not due to her own nature, but because of the nature of her son. The ecumenical councils sought to clarify the nature of Jesus Christ and this clarification shone light also upon the role of Mary, which may have influenced how the Church viewed the typology of Mary and of the Ark.

After the conciliar age, the typology seems to stabilize and we see it becoming part of Orthodox praxis in the services of the Church as described above. Iconography finally incorporates the typology and we not only hear it in the hymnology, but see it on the walls of the church. In the end, lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of praying is the law of believing.

Here we have discussed the implications of theological/typological development within the church. In our next post in this series, we will discussion the implications of the fully developed typology.

The Ark: Iconography

In our ongoing discussion of how the Church treats the Ark of the Covenant, we have covered a lot of ground. We have examined the Old and New Testaments, apocryphal works, the writings of the Holy Fathers, and Liturgical treatment of the Ark. In this installment, we will discuss how the Ark is portrayed in the iconography of the Church. This will be the final installment in which we explore concrete examples. Subsequent posts will focus on a discussion of the impact of what we have learned.

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screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-9-36-39-amIconography depicting the Ark almost universally incorporates an emblem of the Theotokos upon the Ark itself. In the 16th century icon of the exaltation of the Ark by Master Theophane of Crete above, you see a circular emblem depicting the Theotokos both on the end of the Ark and at the end of the table upon which the Ark rests. You can see a closeup of the emblem on the Ark at right.

In the icon below depicting Uzzah dying, you can again see the emblem of the Theotokos on the end of the Ark. Uzzah is lying on the ground off to the side of the Ark after he incorrectly touched the Ark. To the left, King David dances before the Ark.

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In a much clearer illustration of the typology, the French icon by Agnes Glichitch of David dancing before the ark on the right portrays the Theotokos very prominentldaviddansant-08y over the center of the Ark.

In the apse above the altar of Holy Theophany Orthodox Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado (my home parish), is an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos depicted in her role as Ark. Portrayed in the photo below, you can see the angels on either side, just as they were in the Mosaic Ark, along with the Mother of God in the center. Just as in Moses’ time God’s presence rested on the mercy seat above the Ark, His presence sits upon His mother. The icon is located immediately above the high place in the sanctuary just as the Old Testament Ark resided in the most holy place of the temple.

 

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screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-9-55-12-amThe photo on the right from the Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church in Chicago quite stunningly and very unambiguously illustrates this typology, representing the divine presence as the radiant circle in the heart of the virgin, just as she bore and bears the Word of God within her. This circle is where the Holy Eucharist is reserved.

In our next installment in this series, we will discuss the development of the typology of the Ark of the Covenant from its beginning to today and the implications of how it has developed.

The Ark: Great Feasts

In our ongoing discussion of how the Church views the Ark of the Covenant, we have examined the Scriptures, apocryphal literature, and the writings of the Holy Fathers. In this post we begin to examine how this rich heritage directly impacts an Orthodox Christian in the ongoing life of the Church, starting with the annual cycle of services.

Entrance of the Theotokos

entrance-theotokosThe feast of the entrance recalls our previous short review of the Infancy Gospel of James. This feast celebrates the events recorded in this gospel and recognizes a connection between Old Testament temple worship and the Holy Mother of God. However, it does not directly connect the Ark with the Theotokos. This feast seems to foreshadow the climactic events depicted during the Feast of the Dormition, which explicitly relates the Ark to the Theotokos. The kontakion below connects the Theotokos to the Tabernacle generally rather than to the Ark specifically.

The all-pure Temple of the Saviour, the precious Bridal Chamber and Virgin, the sacred Treasury of the glory of God, is being brought today into the house of the Lord; and with her she brings the grace of the divine Spirit; of her God’s Angels sing in praise: She is indeed the heavenly Tabernacle.1

Dormition of the Theotokos

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 2.02.57 PMThe Dormition of the Theotokos is perhaps the most explicit of the feasts of the Church when articulating the typology of the Ark of the Covenant. In one set of troparia, the story of the Dormition as related by The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God, including the cutting off of the hands of Jephonias, is directly referenced and so affirmed. In these troparia, the Mother of God is explicitly called “the living Ark.”

Knowing you, All-blameless, to be a mortal woman, but beyond nature Mother of God, with fearful hands the illustrious Apostles touched you, as you blazed with glory, gazing on you as the Tabernacle that had received God.

Just punishment intervened to cut off the sacrilegious hands of the presumptuous, for God guarded with the glory of the godhead the reverence due to the living Ark, in which the Word had become flesh.2

The Virgin Mary is referred to as the Ark of Sanctification or Holiness at least four times and likened to the Ark in different ways several other times. In addition, the Theotokos is also identified with several other emblems of temple worship. In the above quote we see that she is likened to the Tabernacle and in the later troparia below, she is related to the pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:21), the table of the bread of life (Exodus 25:30), the lampstand (Exodus 25:31-40), the censer, Aaron’s rod, and the tablets of stone (Hebrews 9:4).

The Suzerain and God of all apportions to you the things above nature; for just as he kept you a Virgin in your giving birth, so he preserved your body incorrupt in the tomb, and he glorified you with him by a divine Translation, gracing you with honours, as a Son his Mother.

Your Offspring, O Virgin, has truly made you dwell in the Holy of Holies as shining Lampstand of the immaterial fire, golden Censer of the divine coal, Jar and Rod and Tablet written by God, holy Ark and Table of the bread of life.3

This latter set of troparia clearly draw your mind from the falling asleep of the Mother of God to her translation into the presence of the Most High God in the Most Holy Place in heaven, where aspects of her role there are typologically represented by each of these ancient artifacts of worship, not the least of which is the Ark. The entrance of the Theotokos into the earthly Temple is clearly a foreshadowing of her entrance into the heavenly Temple.

Other Hymns and Services

The Ark is frequently connected typologically to the Theotokos in various theotokia, as in the following example from Saturday evening Vespers (tone 1).

When Gabriel addressed you, O Virgin, with his ‘Hail’, as he spoke the Master of all things became incarnate in you the holy Ark, as righteous David sang. You were proclaimed wider than the heavens, for you carried your Creator. Glory to him who dwelt in you, glory to him who came forth from you, glory to him who has set us free through your bearing child.4

Theotokia of a similar nature are found often in the regular cycle of services, including Vespers and Matins. We find additional examples in other services such as the Akathist. The following excerpt from the Akathist emphasizes the Temple typology we found above in the feast of the Dormition.

Hail, tabernacle of God the Word
Hail, greater Holy of Holies.
Hail, Ark — gilded by the Spirit,
Hail, inexhaustible — treasure of life.5

Quite frequently in the services of the Church, the Ark is typologically connected to the Theotokos. What is important to note is that, while it is not consistently the central theme of these services, Orthodox Christians are nonetheless very frequently exposed to this typology. It is part of the warp and woof of Orthodox life.

In our next post in this series, we will examine how the iconography of the Church treats the Ark of the Covenant.


1 Archimandrite Ephrem, The Month of November, in Anastasis.

2 Archimandrite Ephrem, The Fifteenth of August, in Anastasis.

3 Ibid.

4 Archimandrite Ephrem, Paraklitiki Period of Tone 1 On Saturday Evening at Small Vespers, in Anastasis.

5 Archimandrite Ephrem, The Akathist, in Anastasis.

The Ark: Cyril, Fortunatus, and John

In this post we will wrap up our discussion of what the Fathers have to say about the Ark of the Covenant. I will reiterate here that the Church tends to see the Ark as a type of the Holy Virgin Mary.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria

icon_st-_cyril_of_alexandriaSaint Cyril, the twenty-fourth patriarch of Alexandria, lived from 376-444. Saint Cyril seems to hearken back to the tradition exemplified by Saint Irenaeus, but with some additions. The pattern of his statement very closely mirrors that of St. Irenaeus quoted previously, but he inserts some additional commentary that allows us to see the Ark as a type of the Theotokos. He seems to be trying to harmonize the common view of his day with a more ancient tradition.

The Ark would be the type and image of Christ: for if we look back to the way of the Incarnation of the Only-begotten, we shall see that it is in the temple of the Virgin, as in an ark that the Word of God took up His abode. For in Him dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, as the Scripture saith. But the testimonies in the ark were the word of God, and the wood of it was imperishable, and with pure and choicest gold was it beautified within and without. For the Body of Christ is incorruptible, being by the power and brightness of the indwelling Word, and the nature of life-giving operation of the Holy Ghost, maintained in incorruption [emphasis mine].1

Saint Venantius Fortunatus

Commemorated on December 14, the Latin poet and bishop lived circa A.D. 530-610. His usage of this typology supports a belief in the consistency of its application through later times. The following verse in Latin clearly identifies the Ark with the Holy Virgin.

Beata Mater, munere
Cujus supernus Artifex,
Mundum pugillo continens,
Ventris sub arca clausus est.2

While unpoetic, the following rendering is a relatively literal approximation of the above verse translated by myself.

The Holy Mother, by whose offering
The supreme artificer,
containing in His hand the World,
In the womb, within the Ark, was enclosed.

Saint John of Damascus

1204ajohndamascusSaint John, born in A.D. 676, wrote the famous Canon of Pascha that is sung during the Orthodox Pascha services. In the Canon, Saint John doesn’t seem to commit to a specific typological relationship for the Ark. His intention seems to be to expose the contrast between human experience of the types and human experience of the fulfillment.

God’s forebear David, dancing, leaped before the Ark, mere shadow, but seeing the fulfilment of the types, let us, God’s holy people, inspired, rejoice, for Christ has risen as omnipotent.3

In our next post in this series, we will examine how two of the great feasts of the Orthodox Church portray the Ark of the Covenant.


Qtd. in Thomas Livius, The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries, (London: Burns and Oates, Limited 1893), pp. 76–77.

Ibid., p. 458.

Archimandrite Ephrem, Paschal Canon Noted, in Anastasis, p. 3.

The Ark: Saint Jerome

st-jeromeIn our ongoing discussion about how the Church perceives the Ark of the Covenant, we have explored the Old and New Testaments, apocryphal writings, and many of the Fathers. The trend up until now, with a few outliers, has been that the Church tends to see the Ark as a typological foreshadowing of the Holy Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. In this post we will examine how Saint Jerome applies this understanding. Unlike many of the Fathers we have already examined, Saint Jerome takes a practical approach by applying this teaching directly to the life of a nun with whom he is corresponding. This approach is sometimes called tropological and is distinguished by a stressing of moral metaphor.

Saint Jerome, writing in A.D. 384, composed a letter on the topic of virginity to a Roman lady named Eustochium, cofounder of a women’s monastery in Palestine.1 In this lengthy letter, Jerome describes both the proper motivations and way of life of those who choose the path of celibacy. He compares the ideal virgin with the Ark of the Covenant, likening a life of chastity to the nature of the Ark itself.

Like the ark of the covenant Christ’s spouse should be overlaid with gold within and without; she should be the guardian of the law of the Lord. Just as the ark contained nothing but the tables of the covenant, so in you there should be no thought of anything that is outside.2

Later, he sets forth the Holy Virgin Mary as the ultimate model of virginity, by extension drawing a connection between the Ark and the Holy Virgin.

Set before you the blessed Mary, whose surpassing purity made her meet to be the mother of the Lord. When the angel Gabriel came down to her, in the form of a man, and said: Hail, you that are highly favored; the Lord is with you, she was terror-stricken and unable to reply, for she had never been saluted by a man before. But, on learning who he was, she spoke, and one who had been afraid of a man conversed fearlessly with an angel. Now you, too, may be the Lord’s mother.3

Emphasizing Mary’s virginity by noting that she had never been hailed by a man, Saint Jerome’s tropological approach introduces a practical application of the typology to virginity. Up until now, we have seen applications of the typology that help us to understand the role of the Holy Virgin in the economy of salvation, and conversely to retrospectively understand what the Ark was. Jerome extends the metaphor of the Ark to every virgin who seeks to “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27), and as such offers teaching about the celibate life. The Ark is a metaphor for the life of purity striven for by monastics and embodied by the Holy Virgin.

We will cram three more fathers’ thoughts on this topic into our next post in this series, wrapping up our tour of how the Fathers perceive the Ark. Our next step will be to explore how the Ark is treated in some of the great feasts of the Orthodox Church.


1 Louis Saltet, St. Jerome, in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910).

2 Saint Jerome, Letter 22: To Eustochium, trans. W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 6, ed. by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

3 Ibid.

The Ark: Ambrose and Augustine

I’d like to return to our ongoing discussion of how the Church sees the Ark of the Covenant. In our previous post in this series, we looked at the poetry of Saint Ephrem the Syrian. Now we’ll turn our eyes westward to examine what some of the most well-known western saints, Ambrose and Augustine, said about the typology expressed by the Ark.

Saint Ambrose of Milan

ambroseofmilanSaint Ambrose, living from 340-397, provides perhaps the clearest “rationale” for seeing the Ark as a type of Mary. He draws a number of parallels between the Ark and the Virgin in which those applied to the Virgin exceed those of the Ark. He contrasts the Law with the Gospel, the voice of God with the Word of God, and the glitter of gold with the splendour of virginity.

The prophet David danced before the Ark. Now what else should we say the Ark was but holy Mary? The Ark bore within it the tables of the Testament, but Mary bore the Heir of the same Testament itself. The former contained in it the Law, the latter the Gospel. The one had the voice of God, the other His Word. The Ark, indeed, was radiant within and without with the glitter of gold, but holy Mary shone within and without with the splendour of virginity. The one was adorned with earthly gold, the other with heavenly.1

Saint Augustine of Hippo

saugustin02Saint Augustine, living from A.D. 354-430, seems to be one of the few among his contemporaries who holds the Ark to be a type of the Church as the body of Christ rather than a type of the Virgin Mary. The very passage that Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus earlier interpreted as speaking of the Holy Virgin, Augustine interprets as referring to the Church.

Arise, O Lord, into Your resting place [cf. Psalm 131]. He says unto the Lord sleeping, Arise. You know already who slept, and who rose again… You, and the ark of Your sanctification: that is, Arise, that the ark of Your sanctification, which You have sanctified, may arise also. He is our Head; His ark is His Church: He arose first, the Church will arise also. The body would not dare to promise itself resurrection, save the Head arose first. The Body of Christ, that was born of Mary, has been understood by some to be the ark of sanctification; so that the words mean, Arise with Your Body, that they who believe not may handle.2

In the next post in this series, we will examine the more practical approach to this topic as presented by Saint Jerome.


1 Qtd. in Thomas Livius, The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries, (London: Burns and Oates, Limited 1893), p. 77.

2 Saint Augustine of Hippo, Exposition on Psalm 132, trans. J.E. Tweed, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 8, ed. Philip Schaff, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801132.htm>, .