The Ark: Conclusions

This is our final post in the series about how the Church views the Ark of the Covenant. In our previous post, we did some analysis on how the typology developed over time. Here I will share some thoughts on the implications of the fully developed typology. What does it mean?

As Robert Pirsig notes in the popular treatment of philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,

all you’ve got to work with is what you know. So your definition is made up of what you know. It’s an analogue to what you already know. It has to be. It can’t be anything else. And the mythos grows this way. By analogies to what is known before. The mythos is a building of analogues upon analogues upon analogues. These fill the collective consciousness of all communicating mankind. Every last bit of it.1

This mythos underlies the fabric of human consciousness. In the case of the nation of Israel, the relics and stories of the Old Testament formed a large component of the mythos that was woven into the collective consciousness. God, as the author of history, often writes history in such a way that it develops within the mythos the things that will be necessary to help understand and articulate what is to come. This mythos, as the collection of what early Jewish Christians knew, formed the basis of new definitions and a deepening articulation of the gospel in the patristic age.

But typology is more than just a method of definition. I suggest that typology is akin to what C. S. Lewis calls myth. Lewis believed that myth is somewhere between the intellectual and the purely experiential. In traditional usage, memory and imagination are aspects of abstract intellectual thought. Unseen Warfare explains that “imagination is a power of the soul such that, by its very nature, it has no capacity for entering the realm of union with God.”2 It follows that purely intellectual endeavors have no capacity for entrance into a direct experience of God. On the other hand, pure experience does not bring understanding. Lewis advocated myth as a partial solution to this problem. He posited that, “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”3 In a sense myth, and perhaps typology, can be seen to bridge the spiritual and the intellectual.

This way of defining what the Holy Virgin is is a tool to help us understand, not only on an intellectual level, but on a spiritual level as well. Likewise, though the Church emphasizes it less, talking about the Ark as a type of Christ teaches us certain things about Christ on both a spiritual and intellectual level. Neither typology is wrong per se, but the Church, in her wisdom, has chosen to emphasize the Ark as a type of the Theotokos.

The understanding conveyed by typology cannot be obtained through an intellectual discourse such is this. We can certainly discuss aspects of its meaning, but it must be experienced. Perhaps the best place to begin an experience of this typology is participation in the feasts of the Church. As Saint Jerome extended the metaphor of the Ark to the monastic life, the late Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko extended the metaphor to everyone.  In his discussion of the feasts he explains:

Thus, the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is the feast which celebrates the end of the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. When the child Mary enters the temple, the time of the temple comes to an end and the “preview of the good will of God” is shown forth. On this feast we celebrate-in the person of Christ’s mother-that we too are the house and tabernacle of the Lord.4

1 Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, (New York, NY: HarperTorch, 2006), Ch. 28.

2Lorenzo Scupoli, ‘Unseen Warfare,’ trans. E. Kadloubovsky & G. E. H. Palmer (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1987), p. 148.

3 S. Lewis, ‘Myth Became Fact’.

4 Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, volume 2, (

The Ark: Great Feasts

In our ongoing discussion of how the Church views the Ark of the Covenant, we have examined the Scriptures, apocryphal literature, and the writings of the Holy Fathers. In this post we begin to examine how this rich heritage directly impacts an Orthodox Christian in the ongoing life of the Church, starting with the annual cycle of services.

Entrance of the Theotokos

entrance-theotokosThe feast of the entrance recalls our previous short review of the Infancy Gospel of James. This feast celebrates the events recorded in this gospel and recognizes a connection between Old Testament temple worship and the Holy Mother of God. However, it does not directly connect the Ark with the Theotokos. This feast seems to foreshadow the climactic events depicted during the Feast of the Dormition, which explicitly relates the Ark to the Theotokos. The kontakion below connects the Theotokos to the Tabernacle generally rather than to the Ark specifically.

The all-pure Temple of the Saviour, the precious Bridal Chamber and Virgin, the sacred Treasury of the glory of God, is being brought today into the house of the Lord; and with her she brings the grace of the divine Spirit; of her God’s Angels sing in praise: She is indeed the heavenly Tabernacle.1

Dormition of the Theotokos

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 2.02.57 PMThe Dormition of the Theotokos is perhaps the most explicit of the feasts of the Church when articulating the typology of the Ark of the Covenant. In one set of troparia, the story of the Dormition as related by The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God, including the cutting off of the hands of Jephonias, is directly referenced and so affirmed. In these troparia, the Mother of God is explicitly called “the living Ark.”

Knowing you, All-blameless, to be a mortal woman, but beyond nature Mother of God, with fearful hands the illustrious Apostles touched you, as you blazed with glory, gazing on you as the Tabernacle that had received God.

Just punishment intervened to cut off the sacrilegious hands of the presumptuous, for God guarded with the glory of the godhead the reverence due to the living Ark, in which the Word had become flesh.2

The Virgin Mary is referred to as the Ark of Sanctification or Holiness at least four times and likened to the Ark in different ways several other times. In addition, the Theotokos is also identified with several other emblems of temple worship. In the above quote we see that she is likened to the Tabernacle and in the later troparia below, she is related to the pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:21), the table of the bread of life (Exodus 25:30), the lampstand (Exodus 25:31-40), the censer, Aaron’s rod, and the tablets of stone (Hebrews 9:4).

The Suzerain and God of all apportions to you the things above nature; for just as he kept you a Virgin in your giving birth, so he preserved your body incorrupt in the tomb, and he glorified you with him by a divine Translation, gracing you with honours, as a Son his Mother.

Your Offspring, O Virgin, has truly made you dwell in the Holy of Holies as shining Lampstand of the immaterial fire, golden Censer of the divine coal, Jar and Rod and Tablet written by God, holy Ark and Table of the bread of life.3

This latter set of troparia clearly draw your mind from the falling asleep of the Mother of God to her translation into the presence of the Most High God in the Most Holy Place in heaven, where aspects of her role there are typologically represented by each of these ancient artifacts of worship, not the least of which is the Ark. The entrance of the Theotokos into the earthly Temple is clearly a foreshadowing of her entrance into the heavenly Temple.

Other Hymns and Services

The Ark is frequently connected typologically to the Theotokos in various theotokia, as in the following example from Saturday evening Vespers (tone 1).

When Gabriel addressed you, O Virgin, with his ‘Hail’, as he spoke the Master of all things became incarnate in you the holy Ark, as righteous David sang. You were proclaimed wider than the heavens, for you carried your Creator. Glory to him who dwelt in you, glory to him who came forth from you, glory to him who has set us free through your bearing child.4

Theotokia of a similar nature are found often in the regular cycle of services, including Vespers and Matins. We find additional examples in other services such as the Akathist. The following excerpt from the Akathist emphasizes the Temple typology we found above in the feast of the Dormition.

Hail, tabernacle of God the Word
Hail, greater Holy of Holies.
Hail, Ark — gilded by the Spirit,
Hail, inexhaustible — treasure of life.5

Quite frequently in the services of the Church, the Ark is typologically connected to the Theotokos. What is important to note is that, while it is not consistently the central theme of these services, Orthodox Christians are nonetheless very frequently exposed to this typology. It is part of the warp and woof of Orthodox life.

In our next post in this series, we will examine how the iconography of the Church treats the Ark of the Covenant.

1 Archimandrite Ephrem, The Month of November, in Anastasis.

2 Archimandrite Ephrem, The Fifteenth of August, in Anastasis.

3 Ibid.

4 Archimandrite Ephrem, Paraklitiki Period of Tone 1 On Saturday Evening at Small Vespers, in Anastasis.

5 Archimandrite Ephrem, The Akathist, in Anastasis.

The Ark: Infancy Gospel of James

In our previous post, we diverged into a discussion of what typology is and why it matters. Here we return to the topic at hand, the Ark of the Covenant. Both this and the next post in this series will consider works that are sometimes called “apocrypha.” The Orthodox Church does not attach the same stigma to apocryphal works that many protestant traditions have, and while not part of the canon of scripture, many are still considered worthy of study.

The Infancy Gospel of James (this link to the work itself is a quick and interesting read), sometimes called the Protoevangelion of James, is an apocryphal gospel, likely from the second century, that was never accorded canonical status;1 which is not to say that it isn’t a document that has been valued in the Orthodox Church up until the present. This gospel demonstrates that the events celebrated by the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos were present in a very early tradition. We will discuss this feast, which continues to be celebrated annually by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, in a later post.

This gospel tells the story of the infancy and childhood of Mary the Mother of God. Of importance to the topic at hand are some allusions to her entrance into the Holy of Holies in the temple. The gospel tells how, at the age of three, her parents, Joachim and Anna, took her to the temple to be dedicated as a virgin to the service of God just as Hannah took the Prophet Samuel to the temple. The high priest received her, recognizing that the Lord would reveal His redemption through her. He placed her on the third step of the altar where she “danced with her feet.” In the gospel Mary is said to have been, “nurtured in the Holy of Holies, and received food from the hand of an angel.”2

(Some might wonder about having a girl in the temple, but the Scriptures themselves tell of the prophetess Anna, who “did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” Luke 2:37 OSB).

What is striking is that, as we saw earlier, the Ark of the Covenant was no longer in the temple at this time, so the Holy of Holies was essentially empty when Mary entered it. Given this sequence of events, it would be unremarkable if readers of this gospel were to infer that the Holy Virgin had come at the appropriate time to replace the Ark of the Covenant as the dwelling place of God. While this gospel is certainly not explicit about such typology, it is compatible with the hypothetical existence of such a tradition in the second century, just as we found previously that there was enough potential allusion in the New Testament to allow for the theoretical existence of such an early tradition.

In the next post we will discuss the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God. If you’re interested in delving deeper into the Infancy Gospel, you can certainly follow the link above, but Frederica Matthewes-Greene has published a rather nice edition with her own commentary entitled, The Lost Gospel of Mary.

1 George Reid, Apocrypha, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907).

2 Frederica Matthewes-Greene, The Lost Gospel of Mary, (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007), P. 55.