The feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady is well-placed in the course of the Church’s liturgical year. As we continue through the season of Advent, today our eyes are fixed on heaven as we rejoice in the unique participation of the Mother of God in the redemption of mankind, in and through the saving actions of her beloved Son. The collect for this feast begins thus, ‘O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin didst prepare a worthy dwelling-place for thy Son’. Today, then, we rejoice in the ‘worthy dwelling-place’ which is the Virgin Mother of God, whom scripture tells us Almighty God possessed ‘before he made anything from the beginning’ (Wis. 8).
Amongst the titles given to Our Lady in the Litany of Loreto is the ‘Ark of the Covenant’. This alludes to the dwelling-place of God in the midst of the people of Israel in the old testament, and to the reality that Our Lady is the new ark of the covenant because it is in her very body that God chose to come and dwell with us in the incarnation; in the gift of Christ his Son. Just as the ark of the old testament was covered by the glorious overshadowing of the Lord over the tent of meeting, so Our Blessed Lady was overshadowed by the Holy Ghost at her annunciation (cf. CCC 697). What is given to us in types and shadows in the old dispensation is now revealed to us more fully by the light of the gospel; the light of Christ whose New Day dispels the darkness of this night of sin.
The ark of the covenant is described vividly in the book of Exodus, when the dimensions and precise decoration of the vessel are given to Moses by the Lord. The careful preparation demanded for the ark of the old testament prefigures the preparation for that of the new. The Church tells us that in order to become the Mother of the Saviour, Our Blessed Lady was ‘enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role’ (LG 56). The angel that announces her as ‘full of grace’ led Blessed Pope Pius IX to later declare her ‘immune from all stain of original sin’ from the first moment of her conception’. And so we can say that she who bore the Son of the Most High, who is both God and Man, is prepared for this unique role since before time. To her we can attribute the words of Saint Paul to the Ephesians: ‘he chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should holy and blameless before him’ (Eph. 1:4).
And in this, too, we are shown our own calling to sanctity. By Our Lady’s obedience we are given a unique example to guide us to share in the eternal life she now enjoys. We too must give of ourselves wholly, so that in Christ’s incarnation and coming-again he may find room in us to dwell. In every way, but especially in our preparation to receive his Body and Blood in Holy Communion, we are to imitate the purity and humility of the Blessed Virgin so that as the ark of the covenant, and as Our Lady herself, we may become tabernacles fit to receive the presence of God in the gift of his very self.
Writing in the third century, Saint Gregory the Wonderworker honours Our Lady as ‘an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary’. In every offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice that ‘whole treasury’ is offered to us anew. By the intercession of Our Immaculate Mother, may our whole life be an act of preparation to receive the Lord, that one day we, like her, may be clothed with the garments of salvation, and the robe of justice, covered as a bride adorned with her jewels in the wedding feast of the Lamb (cf. Ps. 29: 2).