Carrying the Ark before us: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 1:39–56:

Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

And Mary said:

“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. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”

Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

I must start today’s reflection a small confession: the first real exposure I ever had to the Ark of the Covenant was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Oh sure, I’d watched The Ten Commandments and read the Old Testament passages on it, but I’d never spent much time thinking about the Ark of the Covenant or its implications. Like many eighteen-year-olds at the time of the Harrison Ford picture, the Ark as a powerful and mystical object pierced my consciousness fully for the first time.

Even more astounding: it’s been forty years since the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Good grief!

Since then, of course, the Ark and its place in salvation history has become much more clear to me, even still difficult to entirely grasp. It has long since vanished from sight (which made the film so much fun), likely lost in conquests and pillaging during the fall of the first temple. If it survives on Earth, its location remains a mystery.

We do know from our first reading in Revelation that the Ark exists outside of time and space in the temple of the Lord. In that passage from chapters 11 and 12, the Ark is revealed there at the same time that the Lord’s victory over the devil is described:

God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple. […]

A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne.

The juxtaposition between the Ark and the woman is no coincidence. The Ark of the Covenant carried the Presence of the Lord with the Israelites, protecting them on their forty-year journey to the Promised Land. The Presence resided with the Israelites in the Ark in a tent while David remained king, later transferred to the first temple by Solomon. Until the fall of Jerusalem, the Ark remained in place, with God’s Spirit among His people — even when they fell into idolatry, corruption, and betrayal.

By the time of the Annunciation, however, the Ark may have been gone for centuries. Rather than send His Presence into another artifact, the Lord chose to send His son into the world through Mary. That Presence was so strong in her that Elizabeth and her unborn son could sense and understand it on her approach — much like the Ark when the Israelites carried it before them.

It’s not news, though, that we understand Mary as the Ark of the new Covenant. We see Mary in Revelation as the Queen of Heaven, the woman who selflessly gave her all to save the world through her “fiat” at the Annunciation. The title “mother of God” recognizes her role in bearing the Presence into the world and among God’s people.

But what does that teach us, other than to recognize Mary’s place in the church triumphant? As she so often does through example, Mary teaches us that we are all called to be Arks of the Holy Spirit. Jesus came to open our hearts to the Paraclete, the divine Presence, so that we can bear witness to the Gospel and God’s love for all His children.

And so the question becomes: do people recognize that in us? Mary’s dedication to the Lord was so strong that Elizabeth and her unborn child recognized His Presence on her initial approach without Mary saying a word. Do we carry the Lord as openly and as humbly so that others perceive Him in us? Or do we hide His light under the proverbial bushel — or perhaps don’t open ourselves up enough to Him in the first place?

As we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary this weekend, we should also ask the Lord to help us follow her example and become His Arks to the world. We cannot do so as perfectly as Mary, but the Lord can give us the grace and the strength to do as much as we can. We have a long journey to our Promised Land, and the Holy Spirit will get us through the desert of our lives if we just allow Him to rest in our hearts.

You won’t even need a bullwhip to get there … but take your fedoras anyway.

The front-page image is a detail from “Visitation” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c. 1486-90. On display at the Tornabuoni Chapel. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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