Dear Father, Why do we call Our Lady the Ark of the Covenant in the litany of Loreto? I have always been intrigued by this title.
To answer your question we must go back to the Old Testament and remind ourselves what the original ark was.
In so doing we will find many parallels between the ark and Our Lady.
After giving the Israelites the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone, God commanded Moses to make an ark of acacia wood in which to place them. It was to be overlayed with pure gold inside and out, with cherubs on top, “and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet with you…” (Ex 25:21-22).
Also to be placed in the ark were Aaron’s rod that had budded and a golden urn containing the manna (cf. Heb 9:4).
We see here many figures of Mary. She was all pure and holy, like the gold of the ark. Instead of the tablets of the old covenant, the “ten words” or Decalogue, she had in her womb Jesus himself, the one Word of God, the new covenant.
Aaron’s rod was the symbol of his priesthood and Jesus was the true high priest. The manna was the figure of the Eucharist, of Jesus the living bread come down from heaven. And Mary fulfils the words “There I will meet with you” since in her, God becomes present and meets with mankind. Mary is truly the ark of the new and eternal covenant. Later the Old Testament ark was placed in the tent of meeting and “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex 40:34).
The cloud, or glory cloud, is a symbol of God’s presence, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “In the theophanies of the Old Testament, the cloud, now obscure, now luminous, reveals the living and saving God, while veiling the transcendence of his glory—with Moses on Mount Sinai, at the tent of meeting… The Spirit comes upon the Virgin Mary and ‘overshadows’ her, so that she might conceive and give birth to Jesus” (CCC 697). Thus the cloud that overshadowed the tent and the ark is a symbol of the “power of the Most High” which overshadowed Mary in the Annunciation (cf. Lk 1:35).
We see more parallels between the ark of the covenant and Mary in the visitation of Our Lady to Elizabeth. In the Old Testament, when the ark is brought to King David he exclaims: “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9). These are the same words Elizabeth uses when Mary comes to her: “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Lk 1:43). The ark then remains in the house of O’bed-e’dom for three months, just as Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months.
As a result “The Lord blessed O’bed-e’dom and all his household” (2 Sam 6:11). Elizabeth uses the word “Blessed” three times, referring to Mary and Jesus in her womb. So too, the ark was carried to Jerusalem “with rejoicing”, with David “leaping and dancing before the Lord” (2 Sam 6:12, 16).
When Mary brought Jesus in her womb to Elizabeth, Elizabeth exclaims that “the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk 1:44). Although the ark had been lost in Old Testament times, it reappears in the book of Revelation: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple… And a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun… she was with child…” (Rev 11:19-12:2).
The ark here is clearly Mary, the woman about to give birth. So the idea that Mary is the Ark of the Covenant has deep scriptural roots and early Fathers of the Church recognised it.
In the third century Gregory the Wonder Worker (213-270) wrote: “Let us chant the melody that has been taught us by the inspired harp of David, and say, ‘Arise, O Lord, into your rest; you, and the ark of your sanctuary.’
For the Holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary” (Homily on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary).
A century later St Athanasius (296-373) wrote: “O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides” (Homily of the Papyrus of Turin).
What a beautiful title for Mary: Ark of the Covenant!