The Ark of the Covenant and the Temple of the Lord were important physical manifestations of the presence of Yahweh in the lives of the Israelites. God was the creator of everything, willing it into existence in the creation story by saying, “Let it be so.” Adam and Eve, the first human persons, were his greatest creation. They were conceived without sin, they were full of grace, they were made in his image and likeness. Only when they chose to follow the serpent did the fullness of God’s grace depart from them, and suddenly they were ashamed of their nakedness and had to leave the Garden of Eden.
Even as he evicted them from the Garden, God promised Adam and Eve – us – he would in time send someone to bring us home again. Much of the rest of the Old Testament is a story of humanity’s repeated efforts to live well without an intimate relationship with the God of our being. But God kept calling us. And we kept turning away from him.
After many generations, God responded to our pain and condescended – that word really means came down in gentleness and love – to be present with us in more concrete objects. He gave Moses the Ten Commandments, which were stored in a portable box we call the Ark of the Covenant. The Israelites could look at the Ark and be reminded of their loving judge and God even if they could not see him directly.
After King David established peace in a united Israel, he sought to build a temple – a house for God to dwell in. But through the prophet Nathan, God reminded David of his life of violence and sin. Though David was not worthy to build a house for God to dwell in, God promised David his son would be allowed to build a Temple in Jerusalem, a house of worship where God’s children could worship their loving judge and God even if they could not see him directly.
But a box and a building are not really enough. Boxes get lost and buildings get destroyed. God promised us a son whose kingdom would never end, whose kindness would be established forever. In the Annunciation story from the Gospel, we learn of one further part of the promise. This king whose rule would be eternal would share our human nature. This heir of David, sprung from his loins, would also be the Divine Son – the Word of God.
When David proposed to build the Temple, God asked through the prophet Nathan, “Should you build me a house?” Could a sinful man such as David make the dwelling place for God? No. Only God could make it. Thus Mary had to be as Eve originally was – without the inclination to sin that was given to us through the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. By God’s will, Mary was conceived without sin. She would be the new Ark, carrying within her body the Word of God.
How can God, who is eternal, who is immutable, who is transcendent, become one of us, who are his creatures? This is the mystery of the Incarnation, which we start celebrating in just a few hours. The author of creation will enter into his story – and be limited by it – while that story continues to be written by him who is not limited by it. God agrees to share our human nature.
Imagine with me for a moment that you are Mary. You are, according to ancient writings, the consecrated daughter of a woman named Anne who promised her child to God just as Hannah promised her son Samuel to God in thanksgiving for a long-awaited first child. The consecrated virgins like Mary lived at the Temple until they began to reach adulthood. Holy men, perhaps widowers like St. Joseph, took these young women as their wives to be their protector and provider. Mary knew as she began the journey toward marriage that hers would be a celibate marriage. With Joseph, she was taking her first steps outside life in the Temple, where she had been surrounded by priests and holy men and women in a life of prayer and focus on the Lord.
In that life, Mary would have heard the great prophesies from the scriptures that were read in the Temple and the synagogues. She would recognize that when God sent his messengers, they almost never announced who they were and what they were about. She would remember the men who came to visit Abraham and Sarah, who were proven to be angels only after the miraculous birth of Isaac. She would remember the story of the angel Raphael, who seemed no more than a man as he guided Tobiah in the story of Tobit. As a woman of deep prayer, when she heard the greeting “hail full of grace,” she would indeed “ponder what sort of greeting this might be.”
Thus, when she asked the angel, “how can this be since I have no relations with a man?” she was reminding the angel of her consecrated status – she had not and never would have relations with a man.
At the dawn of creation, God’s plan for humanity was effected through the words, “Let it be.” God made man in his image, and that image included intellect (or knowing) and will (or choosing). In Mary, the new Eve and the Ark of the New Covenant, God’s child used her God-given intellect to understand what the angel Gabriel was saying – that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son – was not what happens to consecrated virgins under the care of an elderly husband, but she used her God-given will to choose to obey. In effecting the Incarnation, she echoed the words God used in effecting creation: “let it be done.” Mary is the theotokos – the bearer of God – she is the Ark of the New Covenant, she is the model of holy obedience; she is the handmaid of the Lord.
In our lives today, in these last few hours of the holy season of Advent and in the Christmas season to follow, let it be that we follow Mary’s example of holy obedience. Let it be that we are the handservants of the Lord.