The ark of the new covenant

21 December 2014
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Advent 4B (RCL)
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Canticle 15
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

All four Gospels deal, at least obliquely, with the embarrassment of Jesus’ irregular birth. Mark has the crowd call Jesus “the son of Mary,” which pretty clearly indicates that Mark was aware of rumors of Jesus’ illegitimacy. Matthew and Luke both create birth narratives that have Jesus conceived in unusual circumstances. Even John appears to hint at the fact in the prologue, in the line in which God gives to those who believe in Jesus the power to become children of God, “born not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or the will of a man,” which appears to be a euphemism for rape. Matthew’s narrative has Jesus recapitulate the history of Israel (sojourn in Egypt, etc.), while Luke sums up the theology of the suffering servant and the restoration of the world through Israel.

Most appealing in Luke’s narrative is the angel’s announcement that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. The Greek for overshadow is episkiazo. It is a rare word in the New Testament, occurring here and in the accounts of the Transfiguration, in which the cloud overshadows Jesus and the disciples on the mountaintop. All of these refer to the account in Exodus 40:35, in which the cloud of God’s glory (the shekina) overshadows the tent of meeting with the ark of the covenant. In the LXX, the word for overshadow is episkiazo. Mary, in Luke’s telling, is the new tent of meeting, and Jesus, in her womb, the holy of holies, is the ark of the new covenant. It’s a lovely image.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary is called the Theotokos, the God-bearer. She is seen as the instrument of redemption, the reconciliation of human nature with the divine energies, which were severed in the fall. Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation is cosmic, not just instrumental in getting Jesus to birth. Her womb becomes the site of the union of the two natures, the site of our restoration to divinity. The Church, in this view, shares the role of Mary, as the site of the union of the divine and human. The body of Christ is coming to birth within the womb of the church; all creation groans for the revealing of the children of God thus conceived.

The reading from Samuel dovetails nicely with Luke’s account of Jesus’ conception. David, now king of the united kingdom and settled in a house of cedar, want to build a house of the ark. God refuses the offer, preferring to have the ark reside in the tent of meeting. In some regards, everything in the history of Israel begins to go south as soon as Solomon builds the Temple. God is now under the control of a priesthood and monarchy. As long as the ark resides in the tent, the people is on the move, ready to follow God wherever God my be revealed.

John’s prologue returns to the image of the tent, when the evangelist says that the Word became flesh and “pitched his tent” or “tabernacled” among us. The word is skeneo. Phil Sellew has argued that skeneo and skiazo share the same root, which is in fact borrowed from the Hebrew shekina. Skene is a canvas covering for a stage (hence our “scene”) or a temple, like the tabernacle in the wilderness, where the shekina of YHWH dwelt.

The collect of the day suggests that we are share the vocation of Mary, in preparing a mansion for Jesus. The collect is in the first person plural, so it is the Church which prepares a mansion for Jesus. This house will not be a house of cedar as David imagined building, but a house of flesh such as Mary prepared.

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