Some more insights from James Alison, this time in relation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, in his talk Living the Magnificat. I don’t agree with Alison on everything in this essay (he takes a very traditional Roman Catholic view on Mary: Immaculate Conception, Queen of Heaven, the works), but I was fascinated by his description of how St Luke presents Mary as the fulfilment of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, describing each of these as “dress rehearsals” for the story that was “definitively and triumphantly performed by Mary of Nazareth”.
He argues that this can be seen in Luke’s choice of Greek words:
So the Spirit of God will overshadow – ἐπισκιάσει – her (Luke 1:35). The dress rehearsals for this include the Ark of the Covenant being overshadowed by the cherubim – συσκιάζοντες (Exodus 25:20), and the Presence overshadowing the Tabernacle – ἐπεσκίαζεν (Exodus 40:35) – in the book of Exodus.
(Note: for technical reasons I’ve had to transliterate the Greek in this post; any errors in doing so are mine alone. Corrections welcomed, through only very slightly gritted teeth…) (Update: issue now fixed, Greek letters restored.)
Each year the High Priest would emerge through the veil from the Holy of Holies, becoming in the process a “temporary incarnation of the divinity”. This provides the “background imagery” for the annunciation:
Mary is to be the real Holy of Holies, the real Ark bearing the covenant, the real Tabernacle into which Moses could not go. And because it is the real high priest, YHWH himself, the Creator, who is to emerge from her, no man needs to go into her first in order to come out again in different robes, as would have been the case with the High Priests of the Temple.
(As an aside, Dr Alison also suggests that the same link is found in Revelation 11:19-12:1, linking the Ark with the woman who is to give birth – support for the interpretation that identifies the woman with Mary?)
Another parallel is found in the account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth:
When Elizabeth hears her greeting, John the Baptist leaps for joy in her womb. The verb in Greek is ἐσκίρτησεν and it appears in two significant places: it is the same verb which in Hebrew describes David dancing about, skipping before the Ark in 1 Chronicles 15, where also the arrival of the Ark is greeted with great shouts – and the verb ἀναφονέω is used of the Levites greeting the Ark and of Elizabeth greeting her cousin.
The same verb is also found in Malachi 4:2, which Alison translates as follows (emphasis of “her” is in the original):
But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in her wings. You shall go forth leaping (σκιρτησετε) like calves from the stall.
In each case, what is happening is the fulfilment of what had been “cultic objects”, with Mary “beginning to live out, slowly, painstakingly, in time, what those cultic objects had been pointing to”:
And it is this real performed, lived-out history over time, soon to be opened out through her son’s protagonism so that we may all become its performers and livers-out, which will itself be the crowning perfection of creation.