By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America
Just as the Ark of the Covenant bore the word of God, Mary bore the word of God made flesh in her womb. To truly savor the identity of Mary––similar as with the identity of Jesus––we must venture deep into the Hebrew Scriptures. Among these roots, we can begin to understand the role of Mary as favored, guide, mother, protector, and most importantly––vessel.
The Ten Commandments prefigure Jesus––the incarnate logos (law, reason, word), just as the Ark of the Covenant prefigures Mary––the dwelling place of God. The dwelling place, or Ark of the Covenant is highly revered by even God himself in the Book of Exodus. The Lord instructs Moses to build the Ark of Acacia Wood, additionally giving precise measurements. Additionally, God continues to give instructions on how to build the Tabernacle for the next few chapters. The reason why the ark and tabernacle are revered is not because of what they themselves are––it is what they hold. Cathedrals, basilicas, churches, and chapels are not beautiful or revered because of the grandeur of their designs (although they may be magnificent); rather, they are revered and beautiful because they hold the presence of God. Pilgrims, worshipers, saints, and sinners enter these sacred spaces that transcend reality. Truth prevails, beauty invades, and goodness embraces. Similar to creation pointing to the Creator, the beauty and brilliance of these churches point to someone beyond the churches themselves.
Mary is revered and venerated because of what she holds; it was not Mary herself––independent from God––that allowed her to be the Mother of God. Her identity and cause of holiness is from God alone. Similarly to a church, a cup or glass is important––not by itself––but because of what it holds. When you wake up in the morning, you crave a cup of coffee––not an empty cup. We do not think to ourselves, “How I long for an empty glass because it is beautiful and perfect as itself alone.” We long for what is inside of the cup. Mary does not independently hold God; rather, she is filled by God.
In Exodus 40:34-35, “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle…[and] the cloud [of God] overshadowed it.” During the account of the Annunciation in Luke 1:35, “the Holy Spirit [comes upon Mary] and the power of the Most High [overshadows her].” Reading the Annunciation account, through an Old Testament lens, reveals a deeper understanding of the mother of God: Theotokos.
In summary, the Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary “to be Theotokos in the true sense of the word.” Theotokos means God-bearer or birth-giver to God. This proclamation is rooted in the Old Testament, as it refers to the Ark of the Covenant. Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant.
|Gospel of Luke
|And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judea Luke 1:39
|And David arose, and went with all the people that were with him from Baale of Judah, to bring up from thence the ark of God II Samuel 6:2
|And David went up, and all Israel, to Baalah, that is, to Kirjathjearim, which belonged to Judah, to bring up thence the ark of God the Lord I Chronicles 13:6
|And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Luke 1:43
|How shall the ark of the Lord come to me? II Samuel 6:9
|How shall I bring the ark of God home to me? I Chronicles 13:12
|And Mary abode with her about three months Luke 1:56
|And the ark of the Lord continued in the house of Obededom the Gittite three months II Samuel 6:11
|And the ark of God remained with the family of Obededom in his house three months. I Chronicles 13:14
|Chart from https://stnektariosroc.org/2014/12/scriptural-references-theotokos-ark-covenant/
What does this mean for us, as members of the living body of Christ? Why is this important? There are three conclusions.
(1) Mary is Favored
Just as the Ark of the Covenant was revered and set apart from ordinary vessels, so too is Mary set apart from us. Luke 1:30 presents that Mary has “found favor with God.” This does not mean we need to be intimidated by her or the amount of grace God has given; rather, we can seek her intercession to grow closer to God, just as she did. The closer we grow towards Mary, the closer we grow towards Christ.
“Let us give ourselves to the Immaculata. Let her prepare us, let her receive Him [Jesus] in Holy Communion. This is the manner most perfect and pleasing to the Lord Jesus and brings great fruit to us. The Immaculata knows the secret, how to unite ourselves totally with the heart of the Lord Jesus… We do not limit ourselves in love. We want to love the Lord Jesus with her heart, or rather that she would love the Lord with our heart.” St. Maximilian Kolbe
(2) Mary is our Guide
Mary cooperated most beautifully with the grace that God bestowed upon her. Coming from a small town, Mary––to the average Nazarene––seemed ordinary. However, she was extraordinary. Being immaculately conceived, Mary was graced with the Holy Spirit in a unique way and did not suffer the stain of original sin. She became an extraordinary vessel for God himself. Who better to learn from than Mary? Isn’t she the most perfect example of a disciple? As a mother guides and teaches her children, Mary teaches and guides us––inviting us closer to the mystery of God made flesh.
“With her for guide, you shall never go astray; while invoking her, you shall never lose heart; so long as she is in your mind, you are safe from deception; while she holds your hand, you cannot fall; under her protection you have nothing to fear; if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favor, you shall reach the goal.” Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
(3) Mary is our beloved Mother and Protector
Mary is the Mother of Christ, the incarnate word of God. If we are members of the living body of Christ, Mary is our mother. This image of Mary is tender and delicate, yet ready to protect and embrace her children in the face of danger. As a mother, she protects us and nurtures us.
“That one woman is both mother and virgin, not in spirit only but even in body. In spirit she is mother, not of our head, who is our Savior himself—of whom all, even she herself, are rightly called children of the bridegroom—but plainly she is the mother of us who are his members, because by love she has cooperated so that the faithful, who are the members of that head, might be born in the Church. In body, indeed, she is the Mother of that very head.” Saint Augustine
As favored, guide, mother, and protector, Mary is a vessel of love. She invites us to open our minds and body to the grace that God has freely given. Mary most fully cooperated with God’s grace, just as many saints have over the past centuries. God uses ordinary people and does extraordinary things. Human beings were made by God, for God. Augustine reminds us that “[God has] made us for [Himself], and our hearts are restless, until they rest in [God].” Through a metaphysical lens, Aquinas reminds us that human beings “attain their last end by knowing and loving God.” Who better loved and knew God than Mary? She raised him, nurtured him, fed him, clothed him, and guided him through his life. Even at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, Mary is present and tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” From the birth, death on the Cross, and Resurrection, Mary loved and knew Jesus. Mary’s heart was at rest because the word of God rests in her. She held Christ in her womb because God filled her body and soul with himself. The grace that filled Mary is the same grace that fills us. Just as Mary held Christ, we too must open our hearts to be filled with Christ, holding Him in the tender, yet firm embrace of a mother.
 The Council of Ephesus was held in 431 A.D.
ST IaIIae 1.8