Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sermon for the Eve of the Feast of the Visitation...

by Father Lee Nelson

I’d like to flesh out something tonight which is not talked about much in the Church, when perhaps it should be, and that is the idea of Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant.

What I hope to do is draw some parallels that will allow us to see the similarities, as well as the differences, between Mary and the Ark.

The Ark of the Covenant is the box of acacia wood, covered with gold, that the Lord commanded through Moses that the Israelites should make to house the Tablets of the Covenant, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod. Through the history of Israel, as outlined in not only the Exodus, but also in the Books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, the Ark is seen to be the very presence of the Lord among the people.

Eventually, when the Temple was built, the Ark came to rest in the Temple in the Holy of Holies.

When the Temple was first destroyed by the Babylonians, the ark was taken as part of the spoils, never to be recovered again. Perhaps it was melted down into Babylonian idols, perhaps it is hidden in some government warehouse in Washington, D.C.

Mary, of course, to us is the tabernacle and Ark of the New Covenant. For nine months, she carries the presence of the Lord - the living Word - in her womb. That she is the Ark of the New Covenant is not something that theologians have drawn out over the years, it is something stated right in the pages of Scripture.

My hope is that this “mini Bible-study” of sorts will bear this out.

First, we turn to Exodus, Chapter 40. The Ark of the Covenant has just been completed and placed within the tabernacle. Exodus recounts to us the following:
“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"

What is happening here is that the the Glory of the Lord, the shekhinah glory as it is called in the Old Testament, covers the tent of meeting - in other words it “overshadows it.”

When we turn to the Gospel of Luke we hear the Angel Gabriel tell Mary when she asks “how can this be since I am a virgin?” He tells her - “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Here we see that the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and overshadows her just as the glory of the Lord overshadowed the Ark of the Old Covenant.

The difference, of course, is that Mark - the Ark of the New Covenant - contains in her body true God and true Man. The Ark of the Old Covenant did not contain a bodily presence, but the true spiritual presence of God who is a spirit.

Next, we turn to Second Samuel, Chapter 6, where we hear that the Israelites lose hold of the Ark to the Philistines. King David gathers thirty thousand men to go and take hold of the Ark again. As they’re dragging the ark across a threshing floor, an ox stumbles, and a man named Uzzah grabs hold of the Ark to keep it from falling. Well, this is not a good thing to do, and so he is struck dead by the power of the Lord.

After this, David says this, and this is the important part - “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?”

Compare this with the words of Elizabeth in todays Gospel reading: “why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

This is a very explicit reference, one which any Jew would have picked up on. Mary is the New Ark, and within her is the presence of the Lord.

Later on in the Sixth Chapter of Second Samuel, King David leaps for joy before the Ark when it is brought into Jerusalem.

Compare this with what happens in the Gospel of Luke, especially important on this Feast of the Visitation - who leaps before the Lord - John the Baptist! He leaps in his mother Elizabeth’s womb - not because of the ark - but because of whom the ark contains - namely the Word of God, just as David had leaped before the ark - not because of the ark, but because of what the ark contained - the Word of God.

There is another parallel as well. Before bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, David places the Ark in a house belonging to Obed-edom the Gittite for three months - the exact amount of time which Mary spent with Elizabeth. In addition, both the home of Obed-edom and the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah are in the hill country of Judea, maybe a short walk from each other.

Why is all of this important?

It is important, not only because of the parallels, but because of the high place this gives not only to Jesus the Word of God, but also to Mary His Mother.
We allude to this in the Collect for the Feast of the Visitation: “Father in heaven, by whose grace the virgin mother of thy
incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping thy word:”

She is blessed in bearing Him. In fact, both Elizabeth and Mary say this.

Elizabeth says “Blessed are you among women.”

Mary says “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” Mary, this humble girl, says this about herself.

The source of the blessing, of course, is the very presence of the Incarnate Word of God within her womb.

But, it is more than that. She is still more blessed in keeping the Word of God.
She keeps the word of God in two ways - first, in keeping Him in her womb, and second, in keeping the Commandments and remaining obedient to the Lord. This is of ultimate importance because it was only in the Protestant Reformation that anyone claimed Mary had sinned, a claim not made in Scripture. The undivided Church has always taught that Mary is without sin - that she is spotless. This is not to say that she is not in need of redemption through Her son. What it is to say is that God took the initiative in creating Mary to be a habitation well-suited to be his dwelling place.

This is why the Angel Gabriel refers to Mary as “full of grace.” Luke uses a very precise greek term which denotes that she is not only now full of grace, but always has been.

You might say a few things to this: but doesn’t this make her God? or aren’t all human beings sinners?

The reply I would give is that Adam and Eve prior to the Fall were without sin, and they were not even demi-gods. They still remained creatures. In fact, one might say that sin makes us less human. Sin, I would remind you as well is not a part of human nature.

To say “after all, we’re only human...” is not a very good excuse.

But, back to what concerns us this evening - Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant.
What we have to recognize is that Mary is most honored when she points us to her Son. The best icons of Mary and Her Son bear this out. Mary is hardly ever depicted without Her Son. Further, it is true to say that all Marian devotion is Devotion to Our Lord and Her Lord. In other words, Jesus cannot get lost in the shuffle.
But, we are still to honor Mary, just as the Israelites, under the Old Covenant, honored the Ark. We are to honor Her as our Mother and as the perfect tabernacle of the Lord Most High.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

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