The Ark could be Seen: A Woman Clothed with the Sun
There’s a little known printer from 16th century Paris named Robert Estienne who messed up a beautiful biblical narrative of Mary as the living Ark of the New Covenant, royal and radiant in heaven. By splitting the Bible up into verses and chapters, Estienne, an ex-Catholic turned Protestant, abruptly divided Revelation 11 and Revelation 12 into two chapters (just when the story was getting good).
Later, the Catholic Latin Vulgate was printed with those same verse and chapter breaks. This particular chapter break separates 'the ark' and 'the woman'. For Catholics, that’s a big problem. Whether Estienne simply did not know that the ark and the woman are one in the same (Mary) or he knew but wanted to sabotage the narrative, we will never know. Unfortunately, every Bible that came after that has kept these artificial breaks. Rev 11 and Rev 12 are still the strongest biblical support for the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. Elsewhere in Scripture, the doctrine is under typological signs and prophecy, implicit and allegorical.
When read together as it was for over one thousand years before the chapter break, the last verse of chapter 11 and the first verse of chapter 12 point to Mary's Assumption. An ark was seen in heaven, in God’s heavenly temple. In the ancient Hebrew imagination this is the same as the sky. The language then switches to a royal pregnant woman seen in the sky adorned with stars, clothed with the glory of the sun and standing on the moon. Clearly. this is Mary since the child in her womb is descibed as having a kingly, messianic identity. Like the ark of old, Mary in her virginal purity is untouchable to men, gold inside and out, and contains within the three signs of the covenant, the manna-Jesus as the New Manna, the staff of the high priest-Jesus as the High Priest and the written law-Jesus as the Word of God and law giver.
The Jerusalem temple was destroyed 20 years before his writing Revelation and the ark had been missing for hundreds of years. John's seeing something more real than earthly structures. He is looking into the Holy of Holies not made by human hands. In the temple on earth, the replica of heaven, God's throne, the ark, was covered by a veil. Since John sees the ark this means he is seeing beyond the veil. The word apokalypsis means 'uncovering' and Revelation means 'unveiling'. What St. John describes in Rev 11:19-Rev 12:1 is more than a great theophany. He was explaining that he was reaching the climax of his apocalyptic vision. This is why we also have the sights and sounds of a fireworks finale, the thunder and lightning etc.. Both verses go together as they have this ongoing vivid cosmic imagery: lightning, thunder, earthquake, hail, the sun, the moon and stars. Unlike the strange symbolic creatures elsewhere in Revelation, these are ordinary, familiar features of nature that speak to us about the divine presence of God.
Rev 11:19 “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a violent hailstorm”.
Rev 12:1 “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars”.
The woman, herself, truly is a theophany since she bears the divine male Child within her womb. She stands in God's house as a living monstrance, holding in the sacred chamber of her womb, the Bread of Life. Instead of paying homage, kneeling in adoration, as every creature should, we read that the ancient serpent, a dragon, is waiting to devour the child after she gives birth. ‘Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth” (Rev 12:4).
This might seem overly symbolic and cosmic or typically allegorical if it were not for the scriptural context of a 'woman' who is the mother of the one who will crush the head of the serpent. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel”. With this proto-gospel prophecy, ‘The Woman’ emerges as a title for the mother of the messiah-King who has the ultimate victory over evil. “She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod” (Rev 12:5). The dragon is also recognized as the serpentine Enemy who tricked Eve into the catastrophic demise.
This same Jesus who stared down Satan in the desert and made him flee at every encounter, finally finished him off with the crushing of his be-fanged, serpentine head. It was at the cross, when Mary, in travail again, went through a second birth. She experienced the piercing of her heart as foretold by Simeon as she stood, braced by her friends and suffered through the passing of Jesus out of this world and birthed into the darkness of death. The interior pain was equivalent to a type of birth pang for the mother of the Son who went through the morbid passage of space and time.
It is the same mystic and author of Revelation, the evangelist John, who gives us this glimpse of Mary as the woman in two other places unique to his gospel. At the Wedding in Cana in John 2, Jesus calls her woman and at the cross in Jn 19, Jesus calls her woman.
This is a title given to Mary as a way to honor her but it also points to her role as the one who will be assumed into heaven and seen in the temple as an ark. Mary as ark of the New Covenant, like Mary as New Eve, has been a long standing typological interpretation that goes back to the apostolic church fathers.
After a brief mention of Mary in the upper room with the apostles at Pentecost, the scriptures say no more of her. This is no small detail. Mary is mother of the Church so of course she is present at the birth of her offspring as Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. This birth of the Church is the third and final birthing process that Mary goes through. Her travail and anguish are not mentioned in the Pentecost narrative but we often see a sorrowful virgin Mary in the many apparitions since the Church came into being. By the way, the devil in Revelation, that menacing dragon who wanted to devour her first born Son has his eyes on all of us who have Mary as our mother. “Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus”(Rev 12:17).
Tradition tells us that the blessed virgin Mary lived out her remaining days with John in Ephesus. It would be John who would have been most familiar with how Mary’s life on earth ended either as a sleep or a death. We know St. Polycarp was John’s disciple and St. Irenaeus of Lyons was Polycarp’s disciple. By the time we get to him we have a detailed theology of Mary established as the New Eve. Irenaeus said, "Eve was disobedient; and when yet a virgin, she did not obey. Just as she … having become disobedient, was made the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race; so also Mary, betrothed to a man but nevertheless still a virgin, being obedient, was made the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. … Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith”.
Since it was John to whom Jesus gave custody of Mary, it is no surprise that St.John’s line of disciples would have a strong Marian theology. Mary as New Eve speaks to and points to Mary assumed into heaven as the Ark of the New Covenant. Both images of Mary reflect her Immaculate Conception, pure gold inside and out, untouchable to men. Like Eve in Eden, Mary reigns now in a celestial garden as the queen mother of God and our mother too. Surrounded by stars and the moon, we have the royal Ark containing within it's sacred chamber the Bread of Life, the Word of God located in the Temple clothed with a shekhina glory surrounding it as radiant as the sun. Come to think of it that sounds alot like Our Lady of Guadelupe (more on that in a future article).
Were it not for that obscure protestant printer, more Christians would be able to see Mary in heaven and rest assured that the Assumption of Mary is a biblical fact.