the assumption of the blessed virgin mary
15th August 2021
Year B – Psalter week 4
One theme running though the readings for this solemnity of the Assumption is the Ark of the Covenant. The reading in the Vigil Mass from the First Book of Chronicles tells of how King David brought the Ark of the Covenant from its temporary resting place in the hill country to Jerusalem. In the Mass during the day, the reading from Revelation describes the Ark suddenly appearing in heaven. Maybe less obvious, but nevertheless also describing an Ark, is the account given in the gospel for the day of Mary’s visitation to her cousin Elizabeth.
You may recall Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah had in their old age conceived John the Baptist. Having been told by an angel that Elizabeth is pregnant, the much younger Mary, who herself is miraculously pregnant with Jesus, travels into the hill country to be with her elder cousin and to give her a helping hand. The joy of this encounter between two expectant mothers comes through clearly in Luke’s account of the Visitation. For a first century Jew, however, this account also speaks of that which the Jewish people had been eagerly awaiting: The return of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant, which was the holiest object in ancient Israel, had been missing for six centuries. In around 587 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah had hidden the Ark in order to preserve it from defilement when Babylonian invaders came to destroy the temple. Within that temple the Ark had occupied the central place, the Holy of Holies. In fact, the Ark was what made that inner sanctum so holy, the holiest place on earth. The Ark held the tablets of stone on which the finger of God had traced the Ten Commandments. The Ark contained also a relic of manna, the food God had given to Israel during their time in the desert. Finally, the Ark preserved Aaron’s staff, the symbol of his priestly office.
Up until the time of Christ, the Jewish people could only imagine what this Ark looked like. All they knew was what they had learnt from history and tradition. Though the Jerusalem Temple had been rebuilt, it no longer contained the Ark in the Holy of Holies because Jeremiah’s hiding place for it had never been found. And yet, what Luke describes in his account of the Visitation is the appearing of the Ark of the Covenant. Firstly, there are significant parallels between Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth and King David’s effort to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem as told in chapter six of the Second Book of Samuel. For example:
- When Luke tells us that Mary ‘set out’ into the Judean hill country to visit Elizabeth, he reminds us of how David ‘set out’ into the same region centuries earlier to retrieve the Ark.
- Upon Mary’s arrival, Elizabeth is struck by the same sense of awe and unworthiness that David felt standing before the Ark.
- Parallels continue as the joy surrounding this great encounter causes the infant John to leap with excitement, much as David danced with excitement before the Ark.
- Finally, Luke states that Mary stayed in the house of Zechariah for three months, recalling how the Ark of the Covenant was temporarily stationed in the house of Obed-edom for a waiting period of three months.
In telling this story of Mary’s Visitation, Luke also draws upon the second Old Testament tradition from the Books of Chronicles. This time he brings into his story a highly significant expression once connected with the Ark when he says that Elizabeth ‘gave a loud cry’. This expression is hardly ever used in the Bible. The only time we find it is here, and only five times in the Old Testament, all of which are stories connected with the Ark. In particular, it refers the sounds made by Levitical singers and musicians when they glorified the Lord in song as David carried the Ark in procession to Jerusalem, and when Solomon transferred it to its final resting place in the Temple. In alluding to these episodes, Luke now tells us how Elizabeth, herself a descendent of the tribe of Levi, lifts up her voice in liturgical praise. Why does Elizabeth do this? Where is the Ark of the Covenant now? Well, it is now in Elizabeth’s presence. However, it is not the Ark of the Old Covenant which was only a wooden box with gold cladding. It is the Ark of the New Covenant which is Mary herself!
Whatever made the Ark of the Old Covenant holy now makes Our Lady even holier. If the first Ark contained the Ten Commandments, the Word of God in stone, Mary’s body now contains the Word of God en-fleshed. If the first Ark contained manna, the miraculous bread from heaven, Mary’s body now contains the Bread of Life that conquers death forever. And if the first Ark contained Aaron’s priestly staff, Mary’s body now contains the divine person of the eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ. In today’s gospel, Luke is not only sharing with us a joyful meeting between two pregnant women, but he is also declaring how the sacred Ark of the Old Covenant which the Jews had awaited so eagerly, was merely a shadow of the Ark of the New Covenant which had now arrived: Mary herself, carrying Jesus, the Son of God.
This solemnity of the Assumption is a celebration of the holiness of Mary, made holy by the divine presence within her. Due to such holiness, the doctrine of the Assumption holds that, at the end of her life on earth, Our Lady did not experience decay, but was taken up body and soul by God into heaven. Today is not, however, a feast for Our Lady alone. Rather, in her person Mary represents all of us who, thanks to the grace of the sacraments, have the divine presence living within us too. In Mary being taken up body and soul into heaven, we see also what awaits us, as we look forward in hope to our own resurrection: The bliss of our own bodies and souls being in God’s glorious presence in heaven for all eternity.
Apocalypse 11:19; 12:1-6. 10
A woman adorned with the sun, standing on the moon.
Psalm 44:10-12. 16
On your right stands the queen, in garments of gold.
1 corinthians 15:20-26
Christ as the first-fruits and then, those who belong to him.l
The Almighty has done great things for me, he has exalted up the lowly.
Sunday Message and Look
DOWNLOADS FOR SUNDAYS IN AUGUST
Download this weeks Sunday Message and Look (for our younger parishioners) by clicking on the images, for all the readings for this week, as well as the prayers during mass and the usual weekly thoughts and reflections.
Mary has been taken up into heaven; all the choirs of angels are rejoicing.