In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul describes the end goal of God’s whole economy of salvation as being to build a temple “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone… in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” The purpose of creation—and of all of human history—has been to establish this cosmic temple, a place where Heaven and Earth meet and where humanity can commune with God.
This was the purpose of the Paradise of Eden, until our first parents violated the commandment and were expelled. The whole long history of the people of God, from Adam to Christ, is the story of many attempts to re-establish Paradise, the Mountain of God, within the midst of humanity. That’s how a man named Moses found himself on top of Sinai (another instance of “the Mountain of God”), in the thick darkness of the cloud, being given the plans for a very special building. This building—called the Tabernacle or “Tent of Meeting” because it was the place where God met with His people—was made to very particular dimensions and filled with very particular furnishings. Some of these furnishings—censers, altars, menorahs, etc.—will be familiar to us, since they have continued by be used by traditional Christians in their worship of the God of Israel.
One of the furnishings was something called an “Ark.” We
know from archeology and history that there were many “arks” in the ancient
world. These were ritual chests which functioned as both reliquaries (holding
items sacred to the cult of a particular god) and also a portable throne for a
god. Such chests were carried on poles and often overlaid with gold, and
crucially, they usually had a lid which bore the image of the deity. The
“Anubis chest” from the tomb of King Tutankhamun in the Valley of Kings is a
good example. If you google a picture of this chest, it looks very similar to
depictions of the Ark of the Covenant, with one exception: it has an idol of
the god Anubis on its cover.
When God commands Moses to make an Ark (and shows him the pattern for doing so) he is not asking him to make something that he had never seen before. What is unique about the Ark are its contents (which prefigure Christ and His mother, as attested throughout the Tradition of the Church) and its lid. This lid bears not a depiction of the God of Israel, for as yet Israel could still not depict their God. Rather, it bears two guarding cherubim, an angelic order understood in the ancient world as guarding the throne of the deity. The message of this Ark was clear: this box is the throne of the God of Israel, whom the Hebrews could not depict. What we see in the Old Testament is that where the Ark goes, there goes the presence of God.
When the Ark is built, it is brought into the Tabernacle.
There, the glory of God fills the tent to such an extent that even Moses is not
able to enter:
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, On the first day of the first month shalt thou set up the tabernacle of the ten of the congregation. And thou shalt put therein the ark of the testimony, and cover the ark with the veil… Thus did Moses: according to all that the Lord commanded him, so did he. Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40)
Fast-forward a bit through time, and the Ark doesn’t
actually stay in the Tabernacle. It gets taken out, is captured, returned, and
eventually makes its way to Jerusalem at the time of the king and prophet
David. David’s son Solomon builds a temple for God—something God had not
requested or commanded, but which he condescends to allow out of love for David
and for his heir. When Solomon builds his temple and the Ark is brought into
it, the glory of God fills the new temple, just as it had the tabernacle in
Moses’ time (3 Kingdoms 7-8).
Centuries pass, and the Ark goes missing (taken to Ethiopia,
some say, or swallowed up by the earth). The beautiful temple which Solomon
built is destroyed by the Babylonian (that’s Neo-Chaldean for those of you
keeping score in the back) Empire, and the people of God go into exile for 70
years. When they return, they build a new temple. When the foundations of the
new temple are laid, every celebrates except for the old men, who weep because
they still remember the glory of what was lost (Ezra 3). And most importantly,
the new or “Second Temple” was missing the Ark. The glory of God never filled
the Second Temple the way it had the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple. Even
according to the record of the Jews, something was missing.
The historian Josephus records that when Pompei the Great entered the Jerusalem Temple, in 63 BC, that he barged into the Holy of Holies (a place no Gentile was allowed to enter) but found it empty. In fact, this seems to have impressed Pompei even more than finding the Ark would have, leading the Romans to the impression that the Jews worshipped God “in mind only.”
Suffice it to say that, when the story of Mary, the Mother of God begins over half a century later, things were in bad shape in Jerusalem. The Temple and its environs were for the most part controlled by a sect known as the Sadducees, who had maintained their power since the time of Pompei by collaborating with the Romans. The truly faithful in Israel had dwindled down to just a handful of families—the most important of which was of course the parents (Joachim and Anna) and cousins (Zacharias and Elizabeth) of Mary, the Mother of God. Her family. Christ’s family. Our family. And it was into this family that Mary, a very special girl, was born—a miraculous gift given to two parents long past the age of childbearing.
Like another Anna (aka Hannah; they’re the same name in the Scriptures), the righteous Anna gave her miraculous child to serve God at the Temple. It was common in those times (in a practice which goes back to the beginning of the Second Temple period and possibly further) for the vestments and furnishings of the temple to be made and cared for by a group of consecrated widows and virgins who lived near the temple, and Mary was to be one of these. She was young, so young, when she was first brought to the Temple, but already she loved God deeply. In a scene that is seen as a fulfillment of the prophecy concerning her in Psalm 44/45, she is led to the steps of the temple by the young women of her clan, carrying lamps to light her way. At the steps of the temple her Kinsman, Zacharias, does something very strange: Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he leads this little girl up the steps into the temple—a place which as a woman she is not supposed to enter—and then leads her into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple itself—the place where the Ark was once kept.
And then something happens to the Second Temple that had not happened since the time of Solomon: the shekinah, the Glory of God, fills the temple, just as it had done in the Old Testament when the Ark was brought. The Holy Spirit now filled the Temple because it had descended upon Mary, the new and living Ark, the true Ark of which the one which Moses built was only a type.
In all of this, the hymns of the Orthodox Church see the fulfillment of the words of the Prophet David concerning his descendant, the “queen” who stood at the King’s “right hand” that: “Virgins shall be brought to the King after her: her companions shall be brought unto Thee / With gladness and rejoicing shall they be brought : they shall be brought into the Temple of the King.” (Psalm 44:15-16, LXX). For no Queen of Israel before her was this ever true, and yet the tradition of the Church records that the Virgin Mary was accompanied by the young women of her people, and that she was brought into the “Temple of the King.” Elsewhere, she is referred to as an “acceptable sacrifice,” and we are told that she was brought “into the Holy of Holies [because she was] a sacrifice acceptable to God.”
Mary will become a literal ark—her womb carrying not merely relics, but God Himself—and also a throne, as her lap will be the seat in which Christ sits when the Magi from the East come to pay him homage. In this sense she is revealed as being very literally “more honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious than the Seraphim,” that is, the angels who guard and carry the Throne of God, for she has become the throne itself.
But as glorious as all of this is, it is as we sing in the Troparion of the feast, only the “foreshadowing of the good pleasure of God.” In her, Human Nature is revealed as the true and proper Tabernacle of God the Word, but it is God the Word Himself who will, as we sing at Christmas, forever raise up the image—the icon—which fell with Adam.