Monday 7 September 2015

Mary the Tabernacle of God

The stream of the river maketh the city of God joyful: the most High hath sanctified his own tabernacle.
Psalm 45:5 (aka Psalm 46:4)

One of the reasons why Catholic and Orthodox Christians on the one hand and Christians of the Reformation traditions (Protestants) on the other have such divergent approaches to the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is because they read the Old Testament in significantly different ways. For the first (and oldest) group the text is chiefly significant because it contains in a veiled form the contents of the New Testament and one studies it to see in shadow what becomes more fully revealed in the light that is Jesus Christ our Saviour. Protestants primarily see it as a record of the relationship between God and His chosen people Israel, a relationship which reaches its summit and fulfilment in the mission of our Lord.

The two approaches are perfectly compatible with each other. Catholics would use both but perhaps place the emphasis more on the typological method, that is looking at the types or figures with which the Holy Spirit has pre-figured the Gospel. Protestants, however, are generally suspicious of typology unless Scripture itself clearly mandates it for a particular passage. This is particularly so with the use of allegory, the fear is that humans will devise their own doctrines and artificially seek to impose them on the Bible by allegorising texts which have a clear meaning and sense without allegory. There is a certain lack of consistency in this approach; the Song of Songs, for example, read literally is erotic love poetry so Protestants tend to read it as an allegory but there is no specific mandate in Scripture to do so.

It strikes me, however, that there is a possible way which allows us to synthesise our understanding to some extent. Even if we grant for the sake of argument that the allegorical method is generally inadmissible there should be no reason why we cannot agree that the use of analogy is perfectly acceptable. By which I mean that if the Old Testament shows God acting in certain ways or upholding certain principles we can assume that He acts in the same way and on the same principles in the New unless Scripture specifically informs us otherwise.

Which brings me to Mary and the Tabernacle of the Lord. The Tabernacle was that structure sitting at the heart of the nation of Israel where God dwelt among His people in a special manner. It first took shape as the Tent of Meeting at the time of Moses and later became the Temple of Solomon. There is no doubt that God dwelt in a special way too in Mary, the mother of the Son of God. I would suggest that the principles which underlay the construction of the first Tabernacle, made by human hands, also underlay the creation of Mary in the womb of her mother St Ann by the hand of God.

What were these principles? The details for the Tent of Meeting were laid out at some length in two passages of the Book of Exodus. Chapters 25-31 contain the plans outlined by the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai and Chapters 35-40 describe its actual construction. Significantly the final verses of the final chapter of Exodus (40) concern themselves with God inhabiting the Tabernacle. It would take up to much space to go through every point here but there are some key aspects to highlight-

  • Moses was not just told how to build the Tent but was shown its divine blueprint "Look well, and make everything in due accord with the pattern which has been shewn to thee on the mountain." (Exodus 25:40) Which means that before it existed on earth it was fully formed in God's mind i.e. it existed from eternity.
  • It was to be constructed of the best of all possible materials available, gold, silver, jewels, linen, wools and so on. " Provide thyself with spices, a stone of the best and choicest myrrh, and half a stone of cinnamon, and half a stone of scented cane, a stone, too, of cassia" (Exodus 30:23-24)
  • The most skilled craftsmen (and women) were to be employed on this work and the Lord would fill them with wisdom to complete their tasks. "And now the Lord said to Moses, Here is the name of the man I have singled out to help thee, Beseleel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Juda. I have filled him with my divine spirit, making him wise, adroit, and skilful in every kind of craftsmanship...and I have inspired the hearts of all the craftsmen with skill to carry out the commands which I have given thee." (Exodus 30:1-6)
And once the work had been completed- "When all was done, a cloud covered the tabernacle, and it was filled with the brightness of the Lord’s presence" (Exodus 40:31-32) Solomon's Temple although on a grander scale and intended to be permanent was constructed on the same basic principles as outlined in 1 Kings 6-8 (sometimes known as 3 Kings.) "Nothing in the temple but was sheathed in gold, the altar that stood before the shrine with the rest." (1 Kings 6:22) with the same result "As soon as the priests had left the inner sanctuary, the whole of the Lord’s house was wreathed in cloud; lost in that cloud, the priests could not wait upon the Lord with his accustomed service; his own glory was there, filling his own house." (1 Kings 8:10-11)

Solomon, however, makes a point about the Tabernacle which Moses did not. He says "This I ask, that thy eyes should be ever watching, night and day, over this temple of thine, the chosen sanctuary of thy name; be this the meeting-place where thou wilt listen to thy servant’s prayer. Whatever requests I or thy people Israel make shall find audience here." (1 Kings 8:29-30) So the Tabernacle was not only a place where God manifested Himself in a particular way it was also a privileged place of prayer which was more efficacious than petitions delivered without regard for the Temple. Even directing oneself heart and body towards the Tabernacle from afar was effective "as they fall to prayer, let them but turn in the direction of the city thou hast chosen, the temple I have built there in thy honour, and thou, in heaven, wilt listen to their prayer for aid" (1 Kings 8:44-45)

If all these things applied to the lesser sanctuaries, which hosted God's appearance concealed within a cloud, can we assert that the sanctuary of the incarnate God Himself received fewer or less valuable gifts? St Thomas Aquinas put it like this "The Virgin was elected to be the mother of God, and therefore there can be no doubt that God, by his grace, rendered her fit for it." Like the Temple she existed from eternity in the mind of God as a central element of His plan for the redemption of mankind. She was, from the moment of her conception crafted of the finest spiritual materials, exempted from the stain of sin, filled with grace. By the time of her birth it could be said "how lovely in the sight of heaven and earth was the beautiful soul of that happy infant" (St Alphonsus de Liguori)

What the Gospels tell us of Mary's life lets us see that she had indeed been so gifted. As St Alphonsus put it "The offering which Mary made of herself to. God was prompt, without delay; entire, without reserve." If the Tabernacle were a privileged place of prayer for Israel then, again, how much more so will this be true of Mary. Those in her presence, such as the newlyweds at Cana (John 2:1-11) only needed her to observe their needs for Mary to effectively petition her Son Jesus. Those of us who have distanced ourselves from her and from her Son by our sins can, like the ancient Israelites, direct our prayers towards the Tabernacle that is the Mother of God and be sure that they will be heard.

The principle of analogy holds another message for us here also. Catholics are often asked "why pray to Mary when you can go directly to Jesus?" The ancient Israelites were actively encouraged to make their prayers via the Tabernacle although they could, like Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, have made them directly to the Godhead. Why was this? Well, God knows everything about the humans whom He has made. Very few of us are of the stature of Abraham, we are weak and full of fear and forever going back on our intentions and breaking our promises. To turn ourselves towards God in His fullness is a task too intimidating for us and rather than lose us altogether the Lord in mercy provides us with bridges and ladders. Where the terror of Jesus as the just judge may drive us away the mildness of Mary, mother of mercy and Tabernacle of God, will draw us through her Immaculate Heart and pure hands towards her maker and ours.

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The painting is the Natvity of Mary by the Master of the Life of the Virgin.

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