By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
In the book of Exodus, the Lord instructs Moses to build a suitable place for His glorious presence (Exodus 25-40). Described simply as “the dwelling,” the Ark of the Covenant was a gilded wooden tabernacle containing the stone tablets of the commandments and manna, the bread from heaven. More important than these covenant treasures, though, was the fact that the Ark localized the presence of the transcendent and hidden God, depicted above the lid of the Ark (featuring two seraphim) as fire and as cloud. The glory of the Lord accompanied Moses and the Israelites throughout their 40-year sojourn in the desert, and the Ark resided in Jerusalem, brought there by David and installed by Solomon in a majestic Temple. The most sacred space of the Temple, the inner sanctuary housing the Ark, was known as the “holy of holies” (Exodus 26:33-34; 1 Kings 6-8), and was revered by later rabbis as the center of the universe.
Saint Luke certainly has Jewish readers in mind when he narrates the annunciation scene between the angel Gabriel and the virgin Mary. The angel’s initial message about the son Mary will bear focuses on his credentials as the heir of David: “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
In response to Mary’s objection that she has no relations with a man, Gabriel does nothing to assuage her fears; instead, he ups the theological ante with his next disclosure about the promised child: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The verb “to overshadow” employed by Gabriel to describe the action of God in Mary is the precise action performed by God in settling upon the Ark of the Covenant: “Moses could not enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud overshadowed it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35). Furthermore, Gabriel speaks of the child Jesus to be conceived “in your womb” (Luke 1:31) as “holy,” a subtle but stirring reference to the “holy of holies.” Mary’s womb, then, houses the same presence of God as dwelt in the Ark, but the difference is radical: the movement is an utterly personal one, as God presents Himself no longer in cloud and fire, but in human flesh.
The Mary-Ark parallels do not end there. Immediately after accepting her vocation as the mother of Jesus, Mary “sets out in haste into the hill country” (Luke 1:39). She eagerly speeds her steps to visit her relative Elizabeth, herself pregnant despite her advanced age. As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, little John the Baptist leaps in her womb, rejoicing in the presence of his Lord. Just as the Ark was the portable sanctuary accompanying Israel through the desert, so Mary travels with the new presence of God in her womb. And John the Baptist’s womb-jumping imitates David, who danced with abandon before the Ark as it entered Jerusalem for the first time (2 Samuel 6:14-15). In referring to Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43), Elizabeth confirms this bold interpretation of Mary’s womb as the Ark of the new covenant – the name, “Lord,” after all, is the divine name God reveals to Moses in Exodus 3:14-15.
This mystery, marvelous to ponder in its Scriptural roots, is not as remote you might think. Perhaps it will come to mind as you reflect on the presence of the Lord in the tabernacle of your church, or within your own body as you receive Him in the Eucharist, becoming a portable Ark yourself.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.