The Ark: Cyril, Fortunatus, and John

In this post we will wrap up our discussion of what the Fathers have to say about the Ark of the Covenant. I will reiterate here that the Church tends to see the Ark as a type of the Holy Virgin Mary.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria

icon_st-_cyril_of_alexandriaSaint Cyril, the twenty-fourth patriarch of Alexandria, lived from 376-444. Saint Cyril seems to hearken back to the tradition exemplified by Saint Irenaeus, but with some additions. The pattern of his statement very closely mirrors that of St. Irenaeus quoted previously, but he inserts some additional commentary that allows us to see the Ark as a type of the Theotokos. He seems to be trying to harmonize the common view of his day with a more ancient tradition.

The Ark would be the type and image of Christ: for if we look back to the way of the Incarnation of the Only-begotten, we shall see that it is in the temple of the Virgin, as in an ark that the Word of God took up His abode. For in Him dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, as the Scripture saith. But the testimonies in the ark were the word of God, and the wood of it was imperishable, and with pure and choicest gold was it beautified within and without. For the Body of Christ is incorruptible, being by the power and brightness of the indwelling Word, and the nature of life-giving operation of the Holy Ghost, maintained in incorruption [emphasis mine].1

Saint Venantius Fortunatus

Commemorated on December 14, the Latin poet and bishop lived circa A.D. 530-610. His usage of this typology supports a belief in the consistency of its application through later times. The following verse in Latin clearly identifies the Ark with the Holy Virgin.

Beata Mater, munere
Cujus supernus Artifex,
Mundum pugillo continens,
Ventris sub arca clausus est.2

While unpoetic, the following rendering is a relatively literal approximation of the above verse translated by myself.

The Holy Mother, by whose offering
The supreme artificer,
containing in His hand the World,
In the womb, within the Ark, was enclosed.

Saint John of Damascus

1204ajohndamascusSaint John, born in A.D. 676, wrote the famous Canon of Pascha that is sung during the Orthodox Pascha services. In the Canon, Saint John doesn’t seem to commit to a specific typological relationship for the Ark. His intention seems to be to expose the contrast between human experience of the types and human experience of the fulfillment.

God’s forebear David, dancing, leaped before the Ark, mere shadow, but seeing the fulfilment of the types, let us, God’s holy people, inspired, rejoice, for Christ has risen as omnipotent.3

In our next post in this series, we will examine how two of the great feasts of the Orthodox Church portray the Ark of the Covenant.

Qtd. in Thomas Livius, The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries, (London: Burns and Oates, Limited 1893), pp. 76–77.

Ibid., p. 458.

Archimandrite Ephrem, Paschal Canon Noted, in Anastasis, p. 3.

The Ark: Saint Ephrem

ephrem_miniature_16cNow we come to one of my favorite parts of our ongoing discussion about how the Church perceives the Ark of the Covenant. In the works of Saint Ephrem, a contemporary of Saint Athanasius, we find the most poignant expression of this typology to date. Saint Ephrem’s poetic genius strikingly and undeniably expresses the beauty of the typology. Saint Ephrem references this typology multiple times. Below are two of the most interesting references.

With the weapon of the deceiver the First-born clad Himself, that with the weapon that killed, He might restore to life again! With the tree wherewith he slew us, He delivered us. With the wine which maddened us, with it we were made chaste! With the rib that was drawn out of Adam, the wicked one drew out the heart of Adam. There rose from the Rib a hidden power, which cut off Satan as Dagon: for in that Ark a book was hidden that cried and proclaimed concerning the Conqueror! There was then a mystery revealed, in that Dagon was brought low in his own place of refuge! The accomplishment came after the type, in that the wicked one was brought low in the place in which he trusted! Blessed be He Who came and in Him were accomplished the mysteries of the left hand, and the right hand. Fulfilled was the mystery that was in the Lamb, and fulfilled was the type that was in Dagon.1

In this cryptic passage, St. Ephrem begins by enumerating weapons by which the devil attacked humanity: flesh, wood, wine, and woman. For each item in his enumeration he alludes to how the devil used it as a weapon and God used it for salvation. The climax of his enumeration is the woman. Out of the female half of the race, God brought forth a hidden power, the Holy Virgin Mary. Mary is the antitype of the Ark that destroyed the idol of Dagon when the Philistines captured the Ark and housed it in the temple of Dagon (1 Samuel 5:1–7). In the Ark, as in the Virgin, was a book. The book, or tablets of stone, is a type of the only begotten Son and Word of God. The human race fell through the woman, but through the woman the human race was raised up and the wicked one was brought low. Each of the tools used as weapons by the devil contributed to his undoing and thus the typology behind the story of Dagon is revealed: the devil was brought low in the place in which he trusted.

In another passage, St. Ephrem uses juxtaposition to call out the typology. The woman ministers before the man by nature of his headship. Likewise, Joseph ministered before Mary because in her was the Son of God. The last sentence juxtaposes this with the priestly ministry before the Ark. Just as the priest ministered before the Ark because God was present in it, Joseph ministered before Mary. Thus the Ark typifies Mary.

The woman ministers before the man, because he is her head. Joseph rose to minister before his Lord, Who was in Mary. The priest ministered before Your ark by reason of Your holiness.2

In our next post in this series, we will examine what both Saints Ambrose and Augustine contributed to this discussion.

1 Saint Ephrem, Hymns on the Nativity, Trans. J.B. Morris (Hymn nos. 1-13) and A. Edward Johnston (Hymn nos. 14-19), in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co.,1898), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, hymn 3.

2Ibid., hymn 11.