I was struck this week by a connection between two stories about the people of Israel and the ark of the covenant. A common thread I hadn’t noticed before. Allow me to unpack it.
Story 1. From the book of Joshua, chapter 3.
Moses’ successor, Joshua, is standing with the people of Israel along the edge of the River Jordan. Before the people lies a land God had promised He would give them, the Promised Land. Behind them – years behind them – lay the land of Egypt, where they had long suffered and been slaves.
Over the prior 40 years, this people had lived with Moses as their father and guide. Moses had led them, interceded for them, chided them when they needed chiding. He had been an example of prayer and faith to them, as they journeyed through the desert. His prayer had drawn down manna from heaven; his staff had made water issue from a rock. He had stood on a mountain top, alone with God, and glory overshadowed him.
Now the people neared the rich land they had been promised. A land of abundance, with vast expanses and fertile soil. Where they could build a life for their families and find harmony between heaven and earth.
They now reached a pivotal moment. They stood at the edge of the river. They needed to cross to the other side. Taking up the mantle from Moses, Joshua told them how it would come to pass.
The priests will go ahead of you, he said, carrying the ark of the covenant. When the soles of the feet of the priests carrying the ark of the Lord, the Lord of the whole earth; when they but touch the waters of the Jordan, the waters will cease to flow, and you will be able to cross. Even your feet will remain dry.
It’s this phrase that arrests me. When the soles of the feet of the priests but touch the waters of the Jordan…then the river will cease to flow. Power will go out from the soles of the priests’ feet.
Power. The dynamism of God’s Spirit. This pulse of energy that elsewhere we see is able to cure illness, to create from nothing, to carve a corridor in the Red Sea. That same pulse of energy leaked through the soles of the priests’ shoes and halted the water from flowing. So the people could cross through to the land of Canaan.
This energy didn’t emanate from the priests, but from the ark they carried. The ark of the covenant. That wondrous tabernacle which was the central element of Jewish worship.
The ark held three sacred objects. The Word God had given Moses, the manna that had fallen from heaven and the priestly staff of Aaron. All that it touched was touched by the divine presence. Power flowed from this presence.
Fast forward several hundred years.
Story 2. From Luke’s Gospel, chapter 1.
A young virgin journeys to see her cousin. She is a mere peasant girl, around 13-15 years old. She too has a back story. She has just been visited by an Angel. The Angel has told her that she would be the person in whom the long-awaited promise of Israel would be fulfilled. She would bear a child who would receive the throne of the Kingdom of David. A kingdom her people had long awaited. A kingdom that would not end.
Words strain to say it, but – so the Angel said – this child would be the Son of God Himself. God’s Son come to earth. The Logos made flesh in the womb of a virgin, conceived under the action of the Holy Spirit. This child would utter the words he had heard from his Father. He would fulfill the priestly office of Aaron. He would multiply bread and give his disciples a bread made translucent, a bread transfigured with divine life. A bread that would descend from heaven and give life to the world.
The virgin’s name was Mary. Her child, Jesus, now stirred as an infant in her womb.
So this is what we have: Logos, Priest and Bread. These elements, contained in the ark, were now, in a fuller sense, contained in the womb of Mary.
Thus, when Mary entered Zacharias’ house and greeted Elizabeth, she was like a priest carrying the ark. And so, at the mere sound of her voice – like the soles of the priestly feet upon the Jordan – power went forth. The power of the Spirit.
At the touch of the Spirit, Elizabeth’s child leapt for joy and she herself was filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s a wondrous encounter. Mary’s mere voice transmits the Holy Spirit to Elizabeth and little John the Baptist, in her womb.
To my mind, this parallelism underscores how Mary is the new ark of the covenant. She is the fulfillment of what the ark represented. She carried the divine Logos, the true priest, the bread from heaven. She was instrumental in bringing Him into our world.
This brings me to today. Today (August 15th), in the Catholic Church, we celebrate the feast of the Assumption, when Mary entered into the heavenly Kingdom. It’s a good day to pray, with Elizabeth: Mary, ark of the new covenant, draw us into the presence of Jesus. Bring us near to him through your prayer. That we, like Elizabeth, might be filled with his Spirit.