The Ark of the Covenant

French school

Apse depicting the Ark of the Covenant, 9th century, Mosaic, The Oratory of Theodulphus, Germigny-Des-Pres, France, Photo © Bednorz Images / Bridgeman Images

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The Grave Clothes, Lying There

Commentary by

Mary Magdelene, John tells us, looks into the tomb and sees two angels, one at the head and one at the feet, where Jesus’s body had been. Who are they, these angels? The question introduces us to a strange, poetic world. Every line of John’s Easter story echoes with allusions to the Jewish scriptures and to the whole story of creation that is recounted there.

The Temple was a microcosm of the entire created order. Its Holy of Holies was a paradise, decorated (as was Theodulf’s chapel) with tree-forms, fruits, and flowers. Separating the Temple’s most sacred space from the daylight outside was a vast veil depicting the heavens. Only the High Priest ever entered the Holy of Holies, and only on the Day of Atonement; he passed through the veil—through the heavens—to the court of God himself. The Holy of Holies in the Old Testament was the house of propitiation: the site where the people’s distance from God was ritually overcome by the scattering of blood.

For the New Testament, Jesus himself is the propitiation; Paul even describes him as the mercy-seat on the ark itself (Romans 3:25).

Back, then, to Theodulf’s mosaic. The ark here appears to be open; the lid has been removed; and a fold of cloth—the rest of it inside the ark—is visible over the ark’s front edge. Such a cloth does not belong in the Holy of Holies; it belongs in the tomb of Jesus. This ark is not just the throne of God; it is Jesus’s empty grave. The small cherubim who flanked the ark are now the angels in Jesus’s tomb. Christ’s own body is the new Holy of Holies, the intersection of heaven and earth, time and eternity.

If the throne of God is suddenly revealed as a tomb, then the empty tomb is by the same token exalted. We see it here in a paradise like that described in Genesis; the Garden of Eden where God once walked with humankind in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8).

As Mary is about to discover: he is here again.

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