Benjamin West, “Joshua Passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant”, 1800
The Bible draws many parallels between the ark of the (old) covenant and Mary, the “ark of the new covenant”
The Church fathers loved to delve into Holy Scripture and find deep meanings and parallels; or types and shadows. One of the titles they gave to the Blessed Virgin Mary was New Eve or Second Eve: because the first Eve said “no” to God and brought about original sin and the fall of mankind.
Mary the “second” Eve (being immaculate and without sin from the time of her conception and thus analogous to Eve as regards sinlessness), said “yes” to God at the Annunciation and in so doing, played a key role in bringing about our redemption, as the Mother of God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Another fascinating analogy along these lines is the notion of Mary as the ark of the new covenant. The original ark was a marvelous gold-lined wooden box that was the holiest item in Judaism. It contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and God made His presence especially manifest over the ark, above what was called the “mercy seat” (Ex 25:22): between two carved golden cherubim (angels). This was an early parallel to the eucharistic Real Presence.
The Church Fathers drew from the following biblical passages in developing this belief:
Luke 1:35 (RSV) And the angel said to her, “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.”
The Greek word for overshadow is episkiasei, which describes a bright, glorious cloud. It is used with reference to the cloud of transfiguration of Jesus (Mt 17:5; Mk 9:7; Lk 9:34) and also has a connection to the shekinah glory of God (Ex 24:15-16; 40:34-38; 1 Ki 8:10).
Mary is, therefore, in effect, the new temple and holy of holies, where God was present in a special fashion. Scripture draws many parallels between Mary, the “ark of the new covenant” and the ark of the (old) covenant:
Exodus 40:34-35 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
The Greek Septuagint translation uses the same word, episkiasei, in this passage.
1 Kings 8:6-11 Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. For the cherubim spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim made a covering above the ark and its poles. And the poles were so long that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place before the inner sanctuary; but they could not be seen from outside; and they are there to this day. There was nothing in the ark except the two tables of stone which Moses put there at Horeb, where the LORD made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.
More direct parallels occur as well:
2 Samuel 6:9 And David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?”
Luke 1:43 And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
2 Samuel 6:15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the horn.
Luke 1:42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
2 Samuel 6:14, 16 And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. . . . King David leaping and dancing before the LORD . . . (cf. 1 Chr 15:29)
Luke 1:44 For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.
2 Samuel 6:10-11 So David was not willing to take the ark of the LORD into the city of David; but David took it aside to the house of O’bed-e’dom the Gittite. And the ark of the LORD remained in the house of O’bed-e’dom the Gittite three months . . .
Luke 1:39, 56 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, . . . And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home.
The temple and tabernacle were holy, and this was especially the case with the holy of holies, where the ark was kept. The presence of God always imparted holiness (Dt 7:6; 26:19; Jer 2:3). The furnishings of the tabernacle could not be touched by anyone, save a few priests, on pain of death (Num 1:51-53; 2:17; 4:15).
The high priest entered the holy of holies only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Num 29:8). A rope was tied to his leg in case he perished from improper behavior (Lev 16:2, 13), so that he could be safely pulled out. Uzziah merely reached out (quite innocently!) to steady the ark of the covenant when it was toppling over, and was struck dead (2 Sam 6:2-7). Others died when they simply looked inside of it (1 Sam 6:19; cf. Ex 33:20).
Thus, by analogy, it was fitting and proper for Mary the ark of the new covenant, Theotokos (“bearer of God”), who had the sublime honor of carrying God incarnate in her womb, to be exceptionally (perfectly) holy.