The Ark of the New Covenant

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Visitation today, May 31. The feast has been part of the Franciscan liturgical calendar since 1263 and was adopted for the universal liturgical calendar a little more than one hundred years later in 1389.

Studies of the cultural norms of the times bring into question whether such a trip from Nazareth in the north to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah in the south could actually have taken place. Women never went anywhere alone, let alone long distances. There is no mention in the Gospel that she was accompanied by anyone. Curiously, the Gospel states that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before returning to Nazareth, but that Elizabeth delivered John subsequently. However, whether or not Mary actually made this trip is really not the issue for us. Since this episode appears only in the Gospel of St. Luke, the real question is why it was included in the first place.

The first chapters of St. Luke's Gospel are an infancy narrative. They tell the parallel stories of the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus. The stories begin in the Temple with the annunciation of John's birth to Zechariah and they end in the Temple when Mary and Joseph find Jesus teaching the elders in the Temple around the child's twelfth birthday. These Temple "bookends" give us a hint as to the real import and purpose of the story.

There are striking similarities between the story of Mary's visitation of Elizabeth and the story from the second book of Kings, chapter six. There are some four points of convergence between the story of David and the Ark of the Covenant and the story of Mary's visit to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, not the least of which is the fact that John leaps for joy in the womb of Elizabeth when Mary comes into Elizabeth's presence while David leaps for joy and dances when in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, it is from this fact that Mary is named "Ark of the Covenant." She carries the salvation of the world in her womb just as the Ark carried the elements of the first covenant, the tablets of the Law and a portion of the manna.

Throughout the infancy narrative, it is obvious that St. Luke is connecting the major characters of these chapters with the "anawim" or faithful remnant of Israel. There are three canticles spread throughout these verses sung by Zechariah, Simeon and Mary herself. These three canticles find their roots in the Hebrew Scriptures and sing of the fulfillment of the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures. The episode of the Visitation places Mary's canticle between the two others and focuses our attention on the infancy narrative of Samuel wherein his mother Hannah sings a canticle that is very similar to and the basis for Mary's canticle.

Thus, the setting of the Temple, the characters of the stories, and the words which they utter point us toward the fact that what we are really celebrating in this Feast is the fulfillment of God's promise in the person of Jesus who lives for nine months in the ark of the new covenant, the womb of the Virgin Mary. In recalling this visit we find ourselves once again plunged into the mystery of God's love for us revealed in God's holy Word, Jesus Christ.

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