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Mary in the Bible (Part 10)

December 6, 2006

God Has Left the Building

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Preliminaries
Part 3: Mary in the Gospel of Mark
Part 4: Mary in the Galatians and the Gospel of Matthew
Part 5: The “Firstborn” of Mary
Part 6: The Archangel Gabriel Sent to Mary
Part7: Zechariah’s Pomp and Doubt Illuminating Mary’s Simplicity and Faith
Part 8: What’s in a Name?
Part 9: Salutations

We left off discussing the extraordinary greeting of the angel Gabriel and the manner in which this greeting highlights the peculiar importance of Mary among all of Israel. For Luke, Mary bears a singular and corporate identity both as the virgin from Nazareth and as the embodiment of Israel’s collective hope as the Daughter of Zion. Now we turn to the climax of Luke’s theological symbolism in regard to Mary’s role in salvation.

Much ink has been spilled by Catholic apologists on the typological relationship between the Ark of the Covenant and Mary. We have touched on it, as well, in earlier posts. However, what seems to be lacking in many Catholic apologetic accounts on Mary is tying the Ark imagery into the greater picture of the Levitical worship of Israel.

Recall that Luke’s two annunciation narratives run back-to-back (Luke 1:5-38), and are concluded by the Visitation between the mothers of the miraculous conceptions, Mary and Elizabeth (Lk 1:39). Recall also that Zechariah, like Moses and Aaron, is of the tribe of Levi, which was the designated priestly class of Israel. The details of Zechariah’s life are not essential to Luke’s narrative, and the Evangelist says as much by introducing Zechariah inside the sanctuary of the Temple performing his sacred duties (Lk 1:8). Zechariah was selected to burn incense from among the priests of division of Abijah, one of the twenty-four divisions of Israel’s priests (1 Chr 24:1-19). The reason for the division and the duties of the Levitical priesthood:

“This was the appointed order of their service when they functioned in the house of the Lord in keeping with the precepts given them by Aaron, their father, as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded him” (1 Chr 24:19).

And so Luke wants us to have this image firmly in mind as we proceed through his narratives. Luke mentions that Zechariah is in the sanctuary intending to burn incense at the altar, which invokes the Lord’s instructions to Moses on worship in Exodus 30:1-8. What’s missing from Luke’s narrative is mention of the Ark of the Covenant, which was the focal point of Levitical worship (Ex 30:6). The Ark had been missing from Levitical worship at least since the time of the Temple’s reconstruction under the priest Ezra (Ez 3:1-13), and was likely lost immediately before or during Babylonian invasion and the plundering of the Temple:

“Then (the Lord) brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who slew their young men in their own sanctuary building, sparing neither young man nor maiden, neither the aged nor the decrepit; he delivered all of them over into his grip. All the utensils of the house of God, the large and the small, and the treasures of the Lord’s house and of the king and his princes, all these he brought to Babylon. They burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects” (2 Chr 15:17-19; cf. 2 Kgs 24:5-10-13).

The last instance of Scripture mentioning the Ark comes from the Deuterocanonical book, 2 Maccabees, where we are told:

“The same document also tells how the prophet, following a divine revelation, ordered that the tent and the ark should accompany him and how he went off to the mountain with Moses climbed to see God’s inheritance. When Jeremiah arrived there, he found a room in a cave in which he put the tent, the ark, and the altar of incense; then he blocked up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the path, but they could not find it. When Jeremiah heard of this, he reproved them: ‘The place is to remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows them mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord will be seen in the cloud, just as it appeared in the time of Moses and when Solomon prayed that the Place might be gloriously sanctified” (2 Mc 2:5-8).

Remember the symbolism of this passage, as it is crucial for interpreting both the annunciation to Mary and the Johannine traditions on Mary. Indeed, an excellent case can be made for the inclusion of 2 Maccabees in the Christian canon based upon the manner in which many of its passages bridge together Old and New Testaments themes that are otherwise unrepresented in Scripture. But the case for the deuterocanonicals is an altogether different discussion from the present one.

Returning to our Lucan narrative, we have an enhanced context for interpreting the transition from Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel to that of Mary. We have seen that Luke frames this narrative in terms of Levitical temple worship, emphasizing the priestly activities of Zechariah and his ministry within the Temple, before moving without pause to Mary’s encounter with Gabriel.

We have already showed the significance of the name of Mary, which ties the Virgin of Nazareth to Miriam, the sister of Moses. We have also showed how the salutation from Gabriel bespeaks of the favor of God bestowed uniquely on Mary prior to her choice to bear the Son of God, which indicates that, chronologically speaking, Mary was highly favored regardless of her decision to become the mother of Jesus. Finally, we have shown how Mary personifies the entire hope of the Israel as the Daughter of Zion, whose son shall become the fulfillment of that hope. Now it is time to complete unpacking Gabriel’s visitation to Mary.

Luke writes down the final exchange between Gabriel and Mary:

“And the angel said to her in reply, ‘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. And behold Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.’ Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the hand maid of the Lord. Mary it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angle departed from her” (Lk 1:36-38).

Therefore? “Therefore” is typically a signal word that indicates an emerging conclusion from a set of premises. So what is the logic behind calling the child “holy”? Well, obviously the reason is because the holy Spirit will come upon Mary and the power of God will overshadow her. Is that it? Is that the whole story? Is there something more involved in the picture that we’re missing?Again, the Old Testament provides us with the answer.

What was missing from the Temple in which Zechariah was ministering? The Ark of the Covenant! When God first commissioned Moses with the construction of the ark, He said:

“They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst. This Dwelling and all its furnishing you small make exactly according to the pattern that I will now show you” (Ex 25:8-9).

The first furnishing whose construction God orders is the Ark of the Covenant which will serve a dual purpose: on the one hand, it will bear the commandments of God (Ex 25:16, 22); and on the other hand, it will be covered by a propitiatory which will become the focus of atonement (Ex 25:17, 22; Lv 16:14-19). The ark was to be placed into a tent where the focus of Israel’s worship will be centered. Once the ark is placed within the tent, it becomes perpetually—at least so it had seemed—the Dwelling of God (Ex 40: 1-3). Immediately after Moses placed the Ark and the other furnishings in the tent, the following phenomenon occurs:

“Then the cloud covered the meeting tent and the glory of the Lord filled the Dwelling: Moses could not enter the meeting tent, because the cloud settled down upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Dwelling” (Ex 40:34-35).

The overshadowing of the cloud is an Old Testament symbol of the presence of God (Ex 19, 34-38, 40). And whatever this cloud descends upon becomes holy and is marked by holiness. Thus, when Mary is overshadowed by God, it indicates His presence within her and marks her with holiness. In the Old Testament, God’s presence is understood to reside within the Ark of the Covenant, which not only indicates the holiness of that which it contains, but also indicates the holiness of the Ark itself. Luke, in his description of the annunciation to Mary, deliberately invokes this concept of the holy presence of God descending upon Mary and sanctifying that which she contains (the Son of God). The presence of God was not to be found within the Temple where Zechariah ministered because of the absence of the Ark of Covenant. Rather, the presence of God resides in the new dwelling of God, the Virgin of Nazareth who becomes, by means of her own consent, the new Dwelling of God.

Luke is hinting at Mary somehow becoming a second Ark of the Covenant. But so far, such an interpretation on our part is not fully justified. We must follow Luke through the rest of his infancy narratives, consolidating the Old Testament symbols that apply to Mary, before we can conclusively determine that Luke is, indeed, describing Mary as a new, and substantially greater, Ark of the Covenant. This will be the subject of the next installment of this series.


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