December 23, 2018, Ark, Incarnation and a Small Town Girl – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I grew up in the Catholic Church – there are a lot of us old Roman Catholics here, I think. And we remember that in the Catholic Church, Mary is a person of great importance, a woman to be honored, for her holiness, for her humility, for her courage. But first of all, because she is important because God himself chose her to be the mother of his only-begotten Son. Other churches, including our own, have tended to shy away from talking about Mary, I think primarily as a reaction against Catholicism. But we are in the wrong about that. Mary herself sang, “Behold, from this day all generations will call be blessed.” And so we should. So today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, on the Eve of the Eve of the Nativity of our Lord, I’m going to talk about Mary.
But first I want to go way back into the earliest history of the Jewish people. Throughout the story of God’s chosen nation, the greatest treasure was the Ark of the Covenant – not to be confused with Noah’s ark, which was a boat. The Ark of the Covenant was a box, or chest, built by a master craftsman named Bezalel, according to a design given by God himself to Moses. The Ark was made of wood from an acacia tree, which is a hard wood that lasts a long time It was approximately the size and shape of an extra large footlocker, and the whole thing was overlaid with pure gold, inside and outside. Bezalel attached rings made of gold to the ark, two on each side. The rings were for poles, made of acacia wood like the ark itself, and like the ark they were overlaid with pure gold. The poles fitted into the rings for carrying the ark, and they were never taken out; they remained in the rings at all times. The cover of the ark was made of pure gold, with two cherubim, two angels facing one another, one on each side, with their wings outstretched over the ark, overshadowing it. This was called the “mercy seat” and God promised to manifest his presence there, between the winged cherubim. And when the Ark was all finished, God commanded the people to put inside it the stone tablets of the Law, his Word, written by his own hand, that he had given to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai.
And that Ark of the Covenant (which means the Promise) was kept in the innermost room of the Tabernacle tent, the Holy of Holies, all the years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. When the people were moving from one place to another, the Presence of God went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night, and the Ark was carried along on the shoulders of four priests, but when they stopped and set up the Tabernacle again, the Presence of God returned to its place above the Mercy Seat on top of the Ark, behind a thick veil that hid it from all eyes.
Because the Ark was such a holy thing that no human being could see, or touch it, and live. Only on one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, was the High Priest allowed to enter the Most Holy Place where the Ark lay – only the High Priest and no one else – and even then he had to wash himself and put on special clothes, and sacrifice a bull for his own sins and two goats and a ram for the sins of the people. And even then, he burned incense to make a dense cloud to hide the Ark from his sight. Throughout the history of Israel, the Ark was the most holy Treasure of Israel, the vessel for the Word of God and the Place of his overshadowing Presence.
Now, about 400 years after Bezalel built the Ark of the Covenant, David became King over Israel. He established Jerusalem as his capital city, and he took 30,000 men and set out to bring the Treasure of Israel into the city, so that the Presence of God would dwell in the midst of his people. They put the Ark into a new cart, drawn by oxen, and set out towards Jerusalem. But on the way, the oxen stumbled, and one of the men, a man named Uzzah, grabbed hold of the Ark to steady it. And he died, because the Ark was a holy thing that no man was allowed to touch. I think David was a mixture of angry and terrified; and suddenly he was struck by his unworthiness. He turned aside and went to the home of a man named Obed-Edom, saying, “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” And he left the Ark in the home of Obed-Edom for three months.
After three months, David noticed that God had blessed the household of Obed-Edom, and so he took his courage in both hands and went to bring the Ark into Jerusalem at last. He pitched a tent in the city to house the Ark. And as the Ark entered the city gates, David was filled with joy, and he leapt and danced before the Lord with all his might.
So now you are wondering why I have spent such a long time talking about the Ark of the Covenant, when I said I was going to talk about Mary? Here’s why…..About 1200 years after David leapt and danced in joy at the coming of the Ark into Jerusalem, the angel Gabriel came to a young woman in the little village of Nazareth with this message: “Hail, highly favored one! The Lord is with you. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Of all human beings who have ever lived, great and small, powerful and weak, known and unknown, Mary alone was chosen to be the vessel which the eternal God would enter as a flesh-and-blood child, and from which he would be born to be the Savior of the whole world. Mary, in all meekness and humility, became the new Ark of the Covenant, because she was the holy vessel in which the most wonderful treasure of God himself took on our humanity, and from which he was born into our world.
From the earliest days of the Church Fathers, Mary was seen as the new and perfect Ark.
St. Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote in the third century, ““O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O (Ark of the) Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which Divinity resides.”
And St. Hippolytus, a great theologian of the Church in Rome, wrote these words: “At that time, the Savior coming from the Virgin, the Ark, brought forth His own Body into the world from that Ark, which was gilded with pure gold within by the Word, and without by the Holy Ghost; so that the truth was shown forth, and the Ark was manifested…”
Today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we read the story of the Virgin Mary as she travels into the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Mary is engaged, but not yet married: a young, unwed woman in her early to mid-teens, probably. She has had her life-changing encounter with the angel Gabriel, and her yet more life-changing encounter with God’s Holy Spirit, who overshadowed her like the winged cherubim on the mercy seat and quickened the seed in her womb that would be Jesus. Carrying that holy secret she entered Elizabeth’s house. And as soon as she came in, Elizabeth’s unborn child, John, leapt for joy in his mother’s womb because he could feel the Presence of the Lord. Mary stayed there with Elizabeth for three months, and then she went back home to Nazareth to prepare for the birth of Jesus.
When the first Christians read about the mysterious golden Ark of the Covenant, hidden behind the veil in the Most Holy Place, they understood that the Ark of Moses was a shadow of something much more glorious, of an Ark not made of wood and gold, not made by human hands at all, but made of humble flesh and blood. And the new Ark, which is the living body of the Virgin Mary, contained something infinitely more valuable than the stone tablets of the Law. Mary, the girl from Nazareth, bore the greatest treasure of all time – the living body of the Incarnate God, the Word of life, Emmanuel, God himself, come to be with his people.
The people of the early Church studied the Hebrew Scriptures, and they saw how the story of God’s people in the past foreshadowed the things that came afterward.
They read how King David carried the Ark to the home of Obed-Edom, where it stayed for three months. And they remembered how Mary traveled to the home of her kinswoman Elizabeth, and that she stayed there for three months.
When David marveled in fear at the unapproachable holiness of the Ark, they read that the King had cried out, “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” And they remembered how Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, marveled at the presence of God in the womb of Mary, and cried out, “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord has come to me?”
They read how David leapt for joy and danced before the Lord when he brought the Ark into Jerusalem. And they remembered that when the unborn John felt the presence of God from within the body of his mother, he leapt in her womb for joy.
St. Ambrose wrote: “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 splendor of virginity. The one was adorned with earthly gold, the other with heavenly”
God has never left his people alone. But for century upon century he was present in unapproachable holiness, unseeable, untouchable. The people of Israel worshipped from a distance; no one could see God and live. God was among them, but his presence hovered over the fearful and awesome holiness of the Ark, hidden within the veil of the Most Holy Place. How wonderful it is, then, how beyond our imagining, that when God came as the treasure of the new Ark he came as a living child, to be seen and heard and held – to be cuddled and sung to and kissed – to be nursed at the breast of his mother.
In his first letter to the churches, John marveled at the wonderfulness of God’s approachability in his coming into the world through the body of Mary: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” Through Mary, God came to us as one who walked and talked and ate with friends, who held children in his arms, who touched lepers and laid hands on the sick to heal them.
When Mary made her humble reply to the angel, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” she had no way of knowing what was about to happen – to her, or to the whole world. She couldn’t possibly have known, she would never have believed, that she was the new Ark of the new Covenant; that she was the living bearer of the living Word – the bearer of God himself. But in the power of the Spirit she understood enough to sing out with joy: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”
What we call the Incarnation – that the One, Infinite, Eternal Creator of the Universe took on flesh and became one of us – that is the first great Mystery of our faith. And that mystery began in the body of a small-town girl named Mary, because she, in humble and courageous faith, said “yes” to God. And from that moment, all generations call her blessed.