There are so many Christmas movies out there that everyone has a favorite. Somebody asked me recently what my favorite Christmas movie is, and I had to think about it. Miracle on 34th Street? No. Stop-motion Rudolph? No. Small One? Despite what my parents would probably tell you, no. Die Hard? Fun movie, but no. My favorite Christmas movie (today at least) is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Why you ask? It’s clearly a perfect parallel to the season of Advent! They are searching all over for the Ark of the Covenant, following ancient manuscripts and the Headstaff of Ra, just like we follow the prophecies of Isaiah and await the Messiah. They find the Ark, and there is this spooky scene where they are lifting it out of the Well of Souls. They know the presence of God lies within, but they can’t quite open it yet, because it’s not the proper time or circumstance. Finally, the end comes, where the Nazis open the Ark – you might consider this like the “Christmas event” of the movie, welcoming God into their midst. But they aren’t properly prepared, and it melts their faces off! So what’s the point? No, Christmas is not going to melt your face off if you’re not prepared. The point is that the Ark of the Covenant in some ways might be considered part of the preparations for Christmas – we know what lies within, and we anticipate it and receive it with joy!
This whole season of Advent, we’ve been talking about King David. The Messiah foretold is supposed to be born of David’s line and to take up David’s Kingdom forever. And we hear today about Bethlehem, a small city, but the city of kings. It’s where King David grew up, and as we know from all our Christmas carols (oh yeah, and the Bible), it’s where Jesus was born. Bethlehem even means “House of Bread”, so how fitting that it’s from Bethlehem that Jesus, the Bread of Life comes. One of the most important things that King David accomplished in his reign was returning the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. At the time, it was at the house of some guy named Obed-edom out in the hill country outside of Jerusalem. And in 2nd Samuel, we hear that as David brought the Ark into the city, David danced and leaped with joy before the Ark of the Covenant. Eventually, it was David’s son Solomon who built the Temple around the Ark. The Ark was so important to the Israelites because it was the physical presence of God before them, to remind them that God is always near to them.
We hear a little more about the Ark today in our Gospel – not directly, but the little details in the Gospel point to the new Ark of the Covenant – the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary is the perfect symbol of the season of Advent. I mean, yes, the season is about Jesus, but in a way, we’re kind of invited to join Mary in her preparation and rejoicing at her Son’s birth. Now, any mother her can tell you that waiting for the baby isn’t always fun, and it definitely lasts longer than 4 weeks. But still, what greater symbol of anticipation than an expectant mother?
One of the titles that we have for Mary in that famous Litany of Loreto is the “Ark of the Covenant”, and we can really see why today in the details. We hear that Mary went in haste to the hill country (oh, St. Luke, you’re so clever!). Then when she goes to meet Elizabeth, John the Baptist starts jumping around with joy – much like David did in adoration before the Ark of the Covenant. There are some other cool details too: David wore an ephod, the clothing of a high priest, and John was of the priestly line of Aaron. Also, the Ark remained in the house of Obed-edom for 3 months before it was revealed to all, and Mary remained in the house of Elizabeth for 3 months. Mary is truly the Ark of the Covenant, the dwelling place for the presence of God. St. Ambrose, a Doctor of the Church, can say this far better than I can:
The prophet David danced before the Ark. Now what else should we say the Ark was but holy Mary? The Ark bore within it the tables of the Testament, but Mary bore the Heir of the same Testament itself. The former contained in it the Law, the latter the Gospel. The one had the voice of God, the other His Word. The Ark, indeed, was radiant within and without with the glitter of gold, but holy Mary shone within and without with the splendor of virginity. The one was adorned with earthly gold, the other with heavenly.
So what are we supposed to get out of this other than to realize how clever God is? Well, I would propose that we learn from this at two angles. First, we are to imitate David and John the Baptist in recognizing the presence of the Lord when he comes before us. That’s really tough to do! It means recognizing the presence of God in the poor, in the weak, in the needy. It means recognizing Christ in our family members that we have to get together with at Christmas, especially the ones you simply can’t stand to be around. It especially means recognizing Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Despite the Church telling us over and over again for 2000 years that it is the Body and Blood of Christ and not just a symbol, how tough is it for us to recognize! But that’s what Advent is about – being able to recognize the presence of Christ in our midst, and if we can’t, then sacrificing and challenging ourselves to grow in doing so.
The second angle that we approach with today is imitating Mary as the Ark of the Covenant. Especially during these seasons of Advent and Christmas, we are challenged to ask ourselves how we are bearers of Christ to others. When we are filled with God’s grace, and especially when we receive the Eucharist into our bodies, we become living tabernacles of the Lord, little Arks of the Covenant. We are therefore called to act in a way that helps others to recognize Christ’s presence, just as Mary did for John and Elizabeth. We do this especially through acts of kindness. I’ve heard so many stories of random acts of kindness this month – from police giving 100-dollar bills to help people get by to strangers paying for the next person in line at the grocery store. If only that didn’t just happen before Christmas! Imagine if it were all year long!
Brothers and sisters, today, we stand before the Lord, present to us in Mary, in each other, and especially in this Eucharist. May we have the faith to recognize him, the courage to reveal him to others, and the gratitude to rejoice and give praise for all he has done for us.