Ark of the Covenant – Intro

The first topic I’d like to discuss is the meaning behind the Ark of the Covenant. I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying how the Church views the Ark and thus I expect this will be a rather lengthy series of posts.

Few emblems in salvation history evoke the level of mystique borne by the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark is the “Holy Grail” of the Old Testament in a manner of speaking. While the Ark contained great power and served as the throne of God on earth in its day, it, as many of the other ancient emblems prior to the incarnation, served a typological role referencing its antitype further into the future. The Ark is most frequently related by the Church to the most holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, who is sometimes called the Ark of the New Covenant. It is this typological relationship that the present series explores.

It is clear from a review of the Scriptures, patristic literature, so-called apocryphal accounts, hymnology, festal celebrations, iconography, and other forms of tradition, that the Church’s expression of this typal relationship develops over the centuries. This series examines, as chronologically as possible, evidence from the life of the Church demonstrating the ways in which this typology is expressed, discussed, and understood and how the expression of the typology develops as the Church deepens its understanding.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how the Ark was viewed in Old Testament terms.

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Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 6.41.46 PMIn Part 1, we began a discussion of how the Church relates to the Ark of the Covenant. The beginning of this relationship of course begins in the Old Testament, when the Ark is constructed.

Overlaid in pure gold, the Ark of the Covenant was a rectangular wooden chest constructed in proportions approximately equivalent to the golden rectangle. Attached to the four corners of the Ark were golden rings for the purpose of load bearing. Gold overlaid wooden poles were threaded through the rings to facilitate transportation of the Ark. Matching the dimensions of its upper surface, a golden propitiatory hammered of a single piece of gold rested atop the Ark. Arising from each end of the propitiatory, an angel faced toward the center, wings outstretched (Exodus 25:10-20 OSB). The Apostle Paul tells us that the Ark contained “the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant” (Hebrews 9:4). The space above the mercy seat was the holiest place in the temple, for God declared,

There I will make Myself known to you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat [the propitiatory], from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of testimony, about everything I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel (Exodus 25:22).

The most significant role the Ark played in the life of the children of Israel was as the place of atonement or propitiation for sin. Only once per year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) did the priest enter the holiest place in the temple to enact the cleansing of the sanctuary. Prior to this great annual cleansing, the priest would perform an elaborate process of self-cleansing and sacrifice in preparation for his entrance into the presence of God, lest he die. After clouding the Ark with the smoke of incense, he would first sprinkle the blood of the bull sacrificed for his own sins upon the eastern side of the propitiatory, and then he would sprinkle the blood of the goat offered as a sin offering for all the people (Leviticus 16:1-19).

In addition to being the throne of God, the container of the tablets of the testimony, and the place of reconciliation with God, the Ark came to represent something of a talisman of power among the Israelites, at times being carried into battle. In the case of Jericho it was processed around the city for seven days, after which the city collapsed and the inhabitants were overcome (Joshua 3:14-17). The story of Uzzah is another example of its great power and the absolute necessity of following established handling procedures. After its return to Israel by the Philistines, the Ark was being transported improperly and seemed to be teetering on the cart upon which it was riding. Uzzah reached out his hand to steady it and was instantly killed (2 Samuel 6:1-11).

The Ark remained in Israel through most of the period of time related to us by the Old Testament. There are several legends as to what happened to the Ark during and after the exile, but no certainty. In the second book of Maccabees, a letter is quoted explaining that the Prophet Jeremiah had been commanded by God to hide the Ark in a cave (2 Maccabees 2:4-8). Another legend claims that the Ark was taken to Ethiopia where it still remains. The only thing that is certain is that the Ark was missing when Herod’s temple was built. In other words, the Ark was absent from the temple during the events recorded in the New Testament and thereafter.

In Part 3, we’ll discuss possible New Testament foreshadowing of the Church’s future typological understanding of the Ark.

Ark of the Covenant in the New Testament

In part 2 of this series, we talked about the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. Here we stroll into more ambiguous territory and attempt to find connections in places where they are not explicit. We focus on typological reference to the Ark. This part of the study is based on modern scholarship rather than on Biblical or Patristic sources. It’s far from certain, but still worthy of discussion. As mentioned at the beginning of this series, the Ark is often connected typologically to the virgin Mary, who is sometimes called the Ark of the New Covenant.

While the typology of the Ark is not directly mentioned in the Holy Scriptures, there exist several possible allusions that are worth discussing. A midrashic approach, exemplified by Fr. René Laurentin, attempts to find an intentional anamnesis embedded in Luke’s infancy narrative, intended to connect it with the Old Testament theme of God being present in the bosom of his people. First emerging in Exodus 33:3 and 34:9, it is developed throughout the Old Testament narrative, which progressively establishes the Ark as the epicenter of God’s presence in Israel.1

Fr. René finds numerous interesting textual parallels between Luke’s language and Ark-related imagery in the Old Testament. For instance, when God takes up residence in Israel, his glory overshadows the tabernacle (Exodus 40:35) just as the power of God overshadows the Holy Virgin as described by Gabriel during the Annunciation (Luke 1:35). In another case he compares David’s transfer of the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:2-11) with Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in the womb of his mother (Luke 1:33-44).2

Fr. René surmises that Luke identified the events portrayed in his infancy narrative with the eschatological fulfillment of this theme as proclaimed by the Prophet Zephaniah. In this prophecy, the Daughter of Zion is thought to be the Holy Virgin and it is here that the typology of both the Ark and the Daughter of Zion converge, as we see God present in the bosom of His people:3

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Cry aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Be glad and rejoice with your whole heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing (Zephaniah 3:14, 17).

A less ambiguous example is the Visitation narrative found in Luke 1:39-44. Elizabeth exclaims, “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me” (Luke 1:43)? This parallels David’s question, “In what possible way can the ark of the Lord come with me” (2 Samuel 6:9)? Similarly, Mary remains in the house of Elizabeth for three months just as the Ark remained in the house of Obededom for three months.4

Many in the Roman Catholic church find a connection between the Ark described at the end of chapter eleven of Revelation and the woman described in the beginning of chapter twelve. Chapter divisions were not present at the time of writing, so the two figures would have been seen tightly juxtaposed by earlier readers. Most of the Holy Fathers see this woman as a figure of the Church, but Cardinal John Henry Newman does not believe this precludes the woman from representing the Theotokos. He explains,

Now I do not deny of course that under the image of the Woman, the Church is signified; but what I would maintain is this, that the Holy Apostle would not have spoken of the Church under this particular image unless there had existed a Blessed Virgin Mary who was exalted on high and the object of veneration of all the faithful.5

In part 4, we’ll take a brief interlude from the topic at hand and discuss typology and why it matters.


François Bovon, Luke the Theologian: Fifty-five Years of Research (1950-2005), (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005), p. 182-185.

Ibid.

Ibid.

Michael O’Carroll, Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, <Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers 2000>, p. 50.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, Modern History Sourcebook: John Henry Newman On the Blessed Virgin Mary, <15 March 2016>.

Typology and Mythology

In our ongoing discussion (see also the previous post), we have been exploring the Church’s approach to understanding the Ark of the Covenant, or rather of understanding through the Ark of the Covenant. I’ve been talking about typology without explaining myself more fully. This post is a divergence from the main topic to help us come to grips with the whys and whats of typology.

A type is, in a sense, a kind of metaphor. For instance, Jonah is often considered a type of Christ in that he went down into the deepest parts of the earth for three days in the belly of a whale, only to rise again from the depths just as Christ rose from the dead.

A fundamental principle of an Orthodox hermeneutic is to read all scriptures, including the Old Testament, Christologically. An objection is often raised that this approach may violate the spirit of the text by reading something into it that is not there.

Modern readings of the Scriptures tend to focus on chronology, however, the authors of the Holy Scriptures were not simply recording history, but conveying a personal experience of God for posterity. Saint John Chrysostom explains that the Biblical authors “perceive with the eyes of the spirit things due to happen after a great number of years.”1 This perception implies something that goes beyond any intellectual endeavor, demonstrating a deep and direct experience of God.

Jesus Christ is the Lord of history. The Latin word vestigium means ‘footprint’. Our English derivative ‘vestiges’ has lost this hidden meaning, but it helps to paint a picture of God’s activity in history. God does not simply send written messages to his prophets to be delivered to His people. He actively leaves vestiges of himself throughout history. As the architect of history, Christ is able to leave his ‘footprints’ directly in the human timeline where the Biblical authors are able to perceive and experience them.

This experience of God is beyond an intellectual abstraction. In keeping with the ancient understanding of memory and imagination as foundational aspects of abstract 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 Because this direct experience of God is not a rational abstraction, it cannot be conveyed by rational means such as direct exposition, but is established through the use of types.

I suggest that typology is akin to what C. S. Lewis calls myth. Lewis’s notion of myth did not coincide with the colloquial usage implying falsehood. Lewis believed that myth is somewhere between the intellectual and the purely experiential. As we noted earlier, 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 can be seen to bridge the spiritual and the intellectual.

Typology thus provides the best and most natural approach through which to ‘tradition’, or pass on, the experience of the divine to following generations. Christ’s extensive and direct use of parables in his teaching affirms this mythological approach. Additionally, typology enables God to pedagogically ‘sneak’ up on truth. The Holy Spirit reveals Christ—truth—to mankind only inasmuch as mankind has the capacity to understand Him in its present state. A case in point is the Law of Moses, which Saint Paul likens to a tutor to bring us unto Christ (Galatians 3:24). Mankind was not yet ready to see Christ and so received a shadow of Christ as a step in its growth.

Saint John Chrysostom affirms that the Holy Spirit “explained everything to us by moving the author’s tongue in such a way as to take account of the limitations of the listeners.”4 Saint John demonstrates his point by drawing a potent parallel between the creation saga in the first chapter of Genesis and the first chapter of the Gospel of John, comparing the creation of light in Genesis with the enlightenment brought to the world through the true light, Jesus Christ the Word. In the time of Moses the world was not yet ready to receive the message delivered by John, but was able to catch a glimpse of the truth through the type present in Genesis.

The Scriptures and the ‘mythology’ portrayed therein pervaded the culture of Israel at the time of Christ and created an ethos of messianic anticipation. Saint John the Forerunner sent disciples to Jesus to confirm that in fact He was the Messiah whom all were anticipating (Luke 7:18-23). Jesus confirmed this truth by allowing John’s disciples to directly experience the fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 61:1). This event clearly demonstrates that the Jews of Christ’s time were anxiously awaiting a Messiah and Christ was actively fulfilling the promises set forth in Scripture.

To further reveal his intervention in history, Christ took unto himself certain names and titles (e.g. ‘Son of Man’) which He had planted in the Hebrew Scriptures so that He might connect Old Testament concepts and teachings with his earthly ministry.5 Frank Herbert’s missionaria protectiva would have been impressed. (You’ll get this reference if you’ve read Dune).

Before he ascended, Christ explicitly outlined to His disciples the things in the Scriptures that pertained to him. According to Saint Luke, “…beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 KJV). The disciples later observed that as He spoke to them, their hearts burned within them, again demonstrating an experience beyond rational thought.

The eastern approach to theology focuses less on a rational understanding of God and more on a direct mystical experience of God. The types present throughout the Old Testament pointing to a fulfillment in Christ help to bring about this near mystical understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ in a way that formal discourse is powerless to evoke. The apostolic and patristic fathers followed the tradition of Christ in their reading of Scripture, finding the footprints of God throughout.

In our next post, we’ll return to the Ark of the Covenant and begin to explore some lesser known ancient documents that help to shine some light on the Ark.


1 Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 10, in The Fathers of the Church, trans. Robert C. Hill, (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1986), vol. 74, pp. 132-133.

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

3 C. S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact.

4 Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 3, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 73, p. 42.

5 Father John Breck, Scripture in Tradition, (Crestwood, New York: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2001), p. 34.

The Ark: Infancy Gospel of James

In our previous post, we diverged into a discussion of what typology is and why it matters. Here we return to the topic at hand, the Ark of the Covenant. Both this and the next post in this series will consider works that are sometimes called “apocrypha.” The Orthodox Church does not attach the same stigma to apocryphal works that many protestant traditions have, and while not part of the canon of scripture, many are still considered worthy of study.

The Infancy Gospel of James (this link to the work itself is a quick and interesting read), sometimes called the Protoevangelion of James, is an apocryphal gospel, likely from the second century, that was never accorded canonical status;1 which is not to say that it isn’t a document that has been valued in the Orthodox Church up until the present. This gospel demonstrates that the events celebrated by the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos were present in a very early tradition. We will discuss this feast, which continues to be celebrated annually by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, in a later post.

This gospel tells the story of the infancy and childhood of Mary the Mother of God. Of importance to the topic at hand are some allusions to her entrance into the Holy of Holies in the temple. The gospel tells how, at the age of three, her parents, Joachim and Anna, took her to the temple to be dedicated as a virgin to the service of God just as Hannah took the Prophet Samuel to the temple. The high priest received her, recognizing that the Lord would reveal His redemption through her. He placed her on the third step of the altar where she “danced with her feet.” In the gospel Mary is said to have been, “nurtured in the Holy of Holies, and received food from the hand of an angel.”2

(Some might wonder about having a girl in the temple, but the Scriptures themselves tell of the prophetess Anna, who “did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” Luke 2:37 OSB).

What is striking is that, as we saw earlier, the Ark of the Covenant was no longer in the temple at this time, so the Holy of Holies was essentially empty when Mary entered it. Given this sequence of events, it would be unremarkable if readers of this gospel were to infer that the Holy Virgin had come at the appropriate time to replace the Ark of the Covenant as the dwelling place of God. While this gospel is certainly not explicit about such typology, it is compatible with the hypothetical existence of such a tradition in the second century, just as we found previously that there was enough potential allusion in the New Testament to allow for the theoretical existence of such an early tradition.

In the next post we will discuss the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God. If you’re interested in delving deeper into the Infancy Gospel, you can certainly follow the link above, but Frederica Matthewes-Greene has published a rather nice edition with her own commentary entitled, The Lost Gospel of Mary.


1 George Reid, Apocrypha, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907).

2 Frederica Matthewes-Greene, The Lost Gospel of Mary, (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007), P. 55.

The Ark: The Dormition of the Mother of God

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.Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 2.02.57 PM

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).

Pope John Paul II, General Audience; Wednesday, 2 July 1997.

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.

Ibid.

The Ark: The Patristic Witness

st-irenaeus-of-lyonIn our previous post, we wrapped up our discussion of apocryphal witnesses to the typology behind the Ark of the Covenant. In this post we’ll begin a lengthy chronological survey of how the ancient Fathers of the Church viewed the Ark. Please recall that, as I have noted several times, the Church tends to see the Ark as a type of the Holy Virgin. We will find that this view is not unanimous among the Fathers and tends to develop over the centuries.

Nowhere in the writings of the early fathers of the Church do we find a treatise on the role of the Mother of God in the economy of salvation. Rather, in order to ascertain the consensus of the Fathers, we must resort to collecting brief extracts scattered throughout works focused instead on the great doctrinal crises of the day, or perhaps in sermons, letters, or other pastoral works.1 In the following series of posts are collected relevant excerpts that demonstrate the development of the great patristic conversation over the centuries. We will begin as early as possible with Saint Irenaeus of Lyons.

The earliest patristic reference to the typology of the Ark, as far as this author is able to ascertain, is found in a couple of fragments from the lost writings of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. The two fragments seem to largely overlap, and so I share from the most complete fragment below. Saint Irenaeus quite explicitly links the Ark with the body of Christ.

ark declared a type of the body of Christ, which is both pure and immaculate. For as that ark was gilded with pure gold both within and without, so also is the body of Christ pure and resplendent, being adorned within by the Word, and shielded on the outside by the Spirit, in order that from both [materials] the splendour of the natures might be exhibited together.2

In our next post, we will examine what Saint Hippolytus says about the Ark.


1 Thomas Livius, The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries, (London: Burns and Oates, Limited 1893), p. 15.

2 Translated by Alexander Roberts, Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenæus, From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.), Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.