(This excerpt is taken from Dr. Tiel's book, "Why Did Adam Fall?" and other Unasked-for Sermons. To read more, you can get the book from our bookstore here.)
Text: “Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites” (Exodus 25:21-22); “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (St. John 16:7).
Indiana Jones made famous the Holy Ark of the Covenant, a golden box that allegedly held the mysterious power of God. However, long before Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sunday schools had been teaching children the truth that this box that could not have contained God (nothing can contain God), but, rather, was itself contained by God. Within it lay not mysterious power, but three Jewish sacraments: the budding rod of Aaron, the holy manna, and the stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments. The rod of Aaron budded as a miraculous testimony to God’s choice of him as High Priest. The holy manna descended from heaven miraculously to feed the Israelites each morning of their sojourn in the Sinai wilderness. And the stone tablets were miraculously engraved by God and given to Moses to authenticate the Law.
We don’t know what happened to the Ark. It lay within the temple of Solomon for many hundreds of years. But in 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon sacked Jerusalem after his army had laid siege to the city and finally broken through the walls. His troops devastated and looted the city, destroying the temple entirely. He carried away not only many Jewish slaves (including Daniel the Prophet), but the temple treasury. We also know that several years later Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, Belshazzar, held a great feast on the night of the fall of Babylon to the Medes and the Persians. He decided to use those golden implements from the temple treasury for his feast, items reserved to the priests of God. But the texts don’t mention the Ark of the Covenant at that feast. In fact, it’s never mentioned again, leading to endless speculation as to its whereabouts or fate. Some think it was taken by the Egyptians earlier in Israelite history, because there is an image of an ark on a wall in Egypt. But this is not compelling evidence, because the idea of a holy ark containing divine items is originally Egyptian. Every Egyptian temple held an ark with the image of its patron deity within it. It seems most likely that the Ark was captured and either destroyed or lost in Nebuchadnezzar’s sack of Jerusalem.
Ultimately, it doesn’t (theologically) matter what happened to the Ark, because the Ark and its contents were sacramental. They pointed to something larger than themselves, something living: Christ as the true living vine and perpetual high priest in which all must be grafted to bear fruit (St. John 15); Christ as the true bread of heaven, living bread of his own substance, which all must eat to know him (St. John 6); and Christ as the living Word of God, the eternal Son (St. John 1). All that lay within the Ark—holy as those items were—pointed to something else, something greater, something living. God doesn’t get upended by pagan military conquests.
Moreover, the Ark itself has also been fulfilled by something living. The original Ark was sheathed in pure gold; the new Ark is clothed in holiness and virtue. Upon the original Ark stood two golden angels; to the new Ark a real living angel appeared and announced the arrival of the King. For the new Ark is none other than a holy Jewish woman named Mary. She bore the Living Word, the Living Vine, and the Living Bread into the world. And so, the Church Council named her “Theotokos” which is Greek for “God-bearer.” She bore God into the world, after carrying him through trouble and tumult just as the original Ark carried its precious cargo through so much traumatic Israelite history.
You can’t beat God. Even when it looks hopeless—as it had to have looked to Daniel and his three friends as, locked in chains, they watched Jerusalem burn—God is already many steps ahead, preparing something even greater, beyond imagining. We know God’s ultimate plan, because it’s His nature, namely divine love. But the way in which he will accomplish it . . . that is the drama. Nobody can tell a story like God. The entire birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus is beyond any human composition. It’s divine drama. And it’s alive. All that happened before was prelude to what was to come, the divine imagery that we call sacrament.
But there’s a third wave. Mary and Christ are themselves pointing to something even greater. You might object that God cannot be greater than God. True. But God can reveal himself in ever greater ways. And this is exactly what Jesus himself suggested to his disciples in the upper room discourse. To understand this, let’s go back in time.
In the Old Testament, God is revealed mostly to the Israelites as the Father. Only occasionally do we get references to the Son. We see the Spirit from time to time. But the Old Testament is mostly about God the Father’s revelation to the world, in particular to the Jews. He appears in many physical forms (wind, fire, cloud, etc.) and angelic forms but never as a human person. Let’s call this the First Wave of Divine Revelation.
The Second Wave comes with the Incarnation. The Father bespeaks the Son. This is a paternal truth because the Son is the perfect image of the Father and he proceeds from the Father. St. John uses the term “begotten” to describe this divine generation (which is eternal, for the Son always is). The Son is God spoken, the Eternal Word. God reveals himself in a far greater way in the incarnation, because now God is God-man. This is a huge and unique revelation of God compared with the past. Though Jesus is given through the Jews, he hints many times and reveals in his actions that his love extends to the Gentiles too.
Notice that the Father, in a sense, gives way to or is fulfilled by the coming of the Son. He is still active in the Son’s ministry, as Jesus often references Him and definitely obeys the will of the Father. The Father also gives testimony to Jesus at his baptism. But it’s clear that with the Son’s entrance into the world, he becomes the greatest manifestation of God: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (St. John 1).
The Second Wave of this divine drama gives way to the Third Wave, as Jesus reveals to his disciples at the last supper. There he tells them that he’s going to send the comforter, the Holy Spirit, but that the Holy Spirit cannot come into the world until Jesus leaves. This is a very interesting comment and must be due to some metaphysical principle in terms of the way in which God reveals himself in the world, namely that the members of the Trinity reveal themselves in turn. It also points out the truth of the famous filioque phrase within the Nicene Creed, namely that the Son sends the Spirit, for Jesus says in one of our texts for today, “I will send him unto you.” Thus, the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.
Jesus begins the Third Wave by breathing on his disciples after his resurrection in the same upper room where he promised the Spirit would come. “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (St. John 20:22). But this is only the beginning, for the Spirit comes in his fullness only after Jesus ascends into heaven. A few days later on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit is fully given not just to the disciples but to the whole Church. This enactment is expressed again and again as the gospel is delivered to new peoples. In each case some manifestation of the Spirit’s giving is revealed to show that the entire Church—Jew and Gentile—is filled with the Holy Spirit.
How is this Third Wave greater than the Second? During his earthly ministry, Jesus was confined within a single human body. But once he ascended and sent the Spirit, his spirit—called the Spirit of Christ—is now incarnate and indwells every single member of his body, the Church. Thus, the new Ark that contains the living God is no longer Mary exclusively but the entirety of the church. The Ark finds its first fulfillment in the blessed virgin but its second fulfillment in the Church. Notice that the Church is still feminine, for this new bearing of persons (in baptism) is caused by the masculinity of God through the femininity of matter. The Church is that feminine bride, and through the divine love of the Spirit of Christ (the groom), Jesus works to bear the fruit of persons, namely the ever-expanding children of God.
Once Mary gives way to the Church in the Third Wave, she—like her Son—is elevated in her ascension. Before the giving of the Spirit, she was the “blessed” and the theotokos. But upon being received into heaven, she is elevated with the new title “queen of heaven,” for her Son’s children (the Church) are her spiritual grandchildren. She is accordingly recognized as Queen-Mother, and (grand)-mother of the Church. This is true for several reasons. First, she is the new mother, the new Eve. Second, she’s the archetype of perfect motherhood. Third, she is divinely royal as revealed by the angel’s announcement “hail” which no peasant girl from Judea would ever have received in the ancient world, but also because she becomes part of the divine royal family by bearing the King. As God-bearer and King-bearer she is clearly the dowager queen, as is true in any temporal monarchial lineage. And in her new enactment as queen of heaven--as queen mother to Christ the King--she accordingly takes a motherly role for the church to advise and guide the new bride in preparation for her Son. And so the Third Wave is completed by the new Ark which is the living body of Christ (the Church) and by the Holy Spirit who is God incarnate in that Church, his temple.
This divine drama (captured in the narrative order of the Nicene Creed) is always pointing to something greater, for as the Jews before us, we too have sacraments that bespeak something greater, sacraments that we partly understand but also that we partly do not. Their fulfillment will presumably be revealed on the return of the King, when it seems likely that the world will finally know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit at once, when God will raise his people to the beatitude of finally seeing the divine essence.