One of the most devastating events in the history of ancient Israel was the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines. In scenes almost reminiscent of Steven Spielburg, however, plagues began to befall the Philistines and they sent word to Israel to please come take their Ark back. The story of its return includes its arrival in Jerusalem and King David’s rather problematic dancing in the streets to welcome it (he apparently did so while naked). The meaning of all of that is fodder for Old Testament scholarly debates. It was, however, a Big Event.
The Ark was lost a second time when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. What they did with the Ark is anybody’s guess. The Ethiopians claim to have it in the village of Aksum, with a strangely cogent tale of how it might have wound up there. Since it remains hidden, it is still a matter of guess-work as to whether it is truly that Ark.
There is a different Ark that has its own story regarding the Temple. It is this Ark that comes into view in the Feast of the Entrance of the Virgin into the Temple (Nov. 21 – Dec. 4 Old Style). The story of this event comes from the Infancy Gospel of St. James, a book that was never part of the canon of Scripture, but whose stories have come down into the liturgical life of the Church and created some of the most endearing images of Christmas (such as the ox and the ass at the manger).
That story is of the child Mary being presented by her parents (her father was a Levitical priest) for service in the Temple. For many centuries, scholars dismissed the story by saying that there were no virgins serving in the Temple. More recent research has suggested that this conclusion is incorrect (much more attention is being given to Second Temple Judaism these days). Nonetheless, the presentation of Mary in the Temple is a feast rich in symbolism.
For this virgin child is the true Ark of God, of which the earlier one, wrought of gold, that rested in the Holy of Holies, was but a type. For, unlike that Ark, she would bear in her womb, God-in-the-flesh. The Temple she entered had no Ark within it – the Babylonian Captivity had either destroyed it or left it lost (I suspect the former). The story of the original Tabernacle of Moses, and the First Temple of Solomon, had stories of the glory of God filling them at their inauguration. The Second Temple had no such stories – it was the second terrible fulfillment of the prophecy related in 1 Sam. 4:21, when the daughter-in-law of the priest, Eli, gave birth to a son, dying in the process. In her last words she named the child “Ichabod” (“the glory is gone”), for she had heard the news of the Ark’s capture by the Philistines.
The child Mary enters a Temple in which the glory of God has departed. Without fanfare, she is the True Ark entering the Temple without notice, just as she will eventually give birth to her God/Son. In her, the glory has returned. The Infancy Gospel of James describes her being taken into the Holy of Holies by her kinsman, Zachariah.
The Old Testament, according to the Fathers, was the “Shadow” of the Truth. The Ark of gold, though wondrous no doubt, was still but an object of human making. The Cherubim that overshadowed the Mercy Seat (it’s lid) were made of gold. They did not speak. But this child would speak face-to-face with an archangel, and carry the Hope of all creation within her womb. That Hope was the Manna, she was the jar. She was the Lampstand, He was the Light.
“All generations will call me blessed,” she sang. And so we do!
More honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you!