What we glimpse in shadows in John’s gospel we find “clothed with the sun” in John’s Apocalypse, the book of Revelation. Even the title of that last book of the Bible leads us back to John’s gospel. “Revelation” is the usual English rendering of the Greek apokalypsis; but the Greek word is richer than that. It is more accurately translated as “unveiling,” and was used by Greek-speaking Jews to describe the moment when the bride was unveiled before her husband, just before the couple consummated their marriage.
So, once again, as at Cana, we find ourselves with John at a wedding feast. John writes in Revelation: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9). Now, throughout the Apocalypse, John uses “the Lamb” to denote Jesus. But who is the bride at this wedding? Toward the end of the book, an angel takes John and tells him, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” Then, together, they see “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:9-10). Jerusalem, it seems, is the bride of Christ. Yet the Jerusalem John describes looks nothing like the earthly Jerusalem. Instead, it shines with “radiance like a most rare jewel…. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel…. The twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass” (Rev 21:11, 19, 21).
Those are beautiful images, but they hardly describe a real city—never mind a bride. What or who, then, is this holy city that is also a bride? Most interpreters, both ancient and modern, believe that the holy city is the Church, depicted by John as the New Jerusalem; for Saint Paul also speaks of the Church in a bridal relationship with Christ (Eph 5:31-32).
Yet if that were all John needed to reveal to us, his Apocalypse would have been a much shorter book. Instead, it is twenty-two chapters long, and filled with images that are sometimes dazzling, sometimes frightening, and often puzzling. We don’t have the space here for a full-scale study of the book of Revelation; but I would like to focus on one of its culminating scenes, its first “unveiling,” which takes place midway through the book.
Ark the Herald Angels Sing
To Jews of the first century, the shocker in the Apocalypse was surely John’s disclosure at the end of chapter 11. It is then that, after hearing seven trumpet blasts, John sees the heavenly temple opened (Rev 11:19) and within it—a miracle!—the ark of the covenant.
This would have been the news story of the millennium. The ark of the covenant—the holiest object in ancient Israel—had been missing for six centuries. Around 587 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah concealed the ark in order to preserve it from defilement when Babylonian invaders came to destroy the temple. We can read the story in 2 Maccabees:
Jeremiah came and found a cave, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense, and he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall be unknown until God gathers His people together again and shows His mercy. And then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear.” (2 Mac 2:5-8)
When Jeremiah speaks of “the cloud,” he means the shekinah, or glory cloud, that shrouded the ark of the covenant and signified God’s presence. Within Solomon’s temple, the ark had occupied the holy of holies. In fact, the ark was what made that inner sanctum holy. For the ark held the tablets of stone on which the finger of God had traced the ten commandments. The ark contained a relic of the manna, the food God gave to sustain His people during their desert sojourn. The ark also preserved Aaron’s rod, the symbol of his priestly office.
Made of acacia wood, the ark was box shaped, covered with gold ornament, and overshadowed by carved cherubim. Atop the ark was the mercy seat, which was always unoccupied. Standing before the ark, within the Holy Place, stood the menorah, or seven-branched candlestick.
Yet the first Jewish readers of the Apocalypse knew these details only from history and tradition. (1) Since Jeremiah’s hiding place had never been found, the rebuilt temple had no ark in its holy of holies, no shekinah, no manna in the ark, and no cherubim or mercy seat.
Then along came John claiming to have seen the shekinah (the “glory of God,” Rev 21:10-11, 23)—and most remarkable of all, the ark of the covenant.
Mary Had a Little Lamb
John prepares his reader in many ways for the appearance of the ark. The ark appears, for example, after the blare of the seventh trumpet of the seventh avenging angel. This is a clear allusion to Israel of the old covenant. In the first and greatest battle that Israel fought upon entering the promised land, God commanded the chosen people to carry the ark before them into the fray. Specifically, Revelation 11:15 echoes Joshua 6:13, which describes how, for six days leading up to the Battle of Jericho, Israel’s seven warrior priests marched around the city with the ark of the covenant before, on the seventh day, they blew their trumpets, bringing down the city walls. For ancient Israel, the ark was, in a sense, the most effective weapon, for it represented the protection and power of almighty God. Likewise, Revelation shows that the new and heavenly Israel also does battle in the presence of the ark.
As we might expect, the ark appears with spectacular special effects: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant was seen within His temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (Rev 11:19).
Imagine that you are a first-century reader, raised as a Jew. You have never seen the ark, but all your religious and cultural upbringing has taught you to long for its restoration in the temple. John builds anticipation, so that he almost seems to be teasing such readers by describing the sound and fury accompanying the ark. The dramatic tension becomes nearly unbearable. The reader wants to see the ark, as John sees it.
What follows, then, is jarring. In our contemporary Bibles, after all that buildup, the passage suddenly comes to a screeching halt as chapter 11 concludes. John promises us the ark, but then seems to bring his scene to an abrupt end. We must keep in mind, however, that the chapter divisions in Revelation—as in all the books of the Bible—are artificial, imposed by scribes in the Middle Ages. There were no chapters in John’s original Apocalypse; it was one continuous narrative.
Thus the special effects at the end of chapter 11 served as an immediate prelude for the image that now appears at the beginning of chapter 12. We can read those lines together as describing a single event: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant was seen. … A great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery” (Rev 11:19-12:2).
John has shown us the ark of the covenant—and it is a woman.
The Apocalypse can indeed seem strange. Earlier we saw a bride that appeared as a city; now we see an ark that appears as a woman.
Who is this woman who is also an ark? Most commentators agree that, on one level at least, this woman—like the bride of Revelation 19—represents the Church, which labors to give birth to believers in every age. Yet it is unlikely that John intended the woman exclusively, or even primarily, to represent the Church. Cardinal Newman offered one compelling argument why personification does not suffice as a reading of Revelation 12:
The image of the woman, according to general Scripture usage, is too bold and prominent for a mere personification. Scripture is not fond of allegories. We have indeed frequent figures there, as when the sacred writers speak of the arm or sword of the Lord. So, too, when they speak of Jerusalem or Samaria in the feminine, or of the Church as a bride or as a vine. But they are not much given to dressing up abstract ideas or generalizations in personal attributes. This is the classical rather than the scriptural style. Xenophon places Hercules between Virtue and Vice, represented as women. (2)
Indeed, mere personification doesn’t seem to fit John’s method throughout the episode with the woman. For he introduces other fantastic characters, who may embody certain ideas, but there can be no doubt that they are also real persons. For example, few interpreters question the identity of the “male child” the woman brings forth (Rev 12:5). Given the context in Revelation, this male child could only be Jesus Christ. John tells us the child “is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron,” and this clearly is a reference to Psalm 2:9, which describes the messianic king promised by God. John also adds that this child “was caught up to God and to His throne,” which can only refer to Jesus, who ascended into heaven.
What is true for the male child is also true for His enemy, the dragon. John states plainly that the dragon is not only an allegory but a specific person: “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9).
In the same way, the dragon’s ally, the “beast rising out of the sea” (Rev 13:1), also corresponds to real people. Let’s look at that hideous beast and then look back into history, to see what John saw. The beast has “ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns upon its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads.” We know from chapter 7 of the book of Daniel that in prophecy, such beasts usually represent dynasties. Horns, for example, are a common symbol of dynastic power.
We should ask ourselves, then: in the first century, which dynasty was most threatened by the rise of the messianic king from David’s line? Matthew’s gospel (chapter 2) makes that clear: it was the dynasty of Herod, the Herodians. Herod, after all, was a non-Jew, appointed by the Romans to rule Judea. In order to shore up his illegitimate reign, the Romans wiped out all heirs of the Jews’ Hasmonean dynasty. Yet Herod claimed to be king in Jerusalem, and even went so far as to rebuild the temple on a grand scale. A charismatic leader, Herod—even though he was a gentile—earned, by turns, the fear, gratitude, and even worship of his subjects throughout his bloody reign. This first of the Herods murdered his own wife, three of his sons, his mother-in-law, a brother-in-law, and an uncle, not to mention all the infants of Bethlehem.
Moreover, Herod had insinuated the temple priests into his governance. Whom did Herod consult, after all, when he sought the newborn Messiah? The Herodian dynasty, then, was a Satanic counterfeit of the House of David. Like David’s true heir, Solomon, Herod had built up the temple and kept multiple wives. He had also, with help from the Romans, unified the land of Israel as it had not been in centuries.
The Herods would make themselves the greatest obstacle to the true restoration of David’s kingdom. Seven Herods ruled in the line of the founding father, Antipater, and there were ten Caesars in Rome’s imperial line from Julius to Vespasian. The beast with ten horns and seven heads corresponds rather curiously to the seven crowned Herods who drew their power to rule from the dynasty of the ten Caesars.
To claim that Revelation 12 is an exercise in personification would be a gross oversimplification. John’s vision, though rich in symbolism, also describes real history and real people, though from a heavenly perspective.
More than a Woman
John describes the struggles surrounding the birth and mission of the Messiah. He shows, symbolically, the roles that Satan, the Caesars, and the Herods would play. Yet the centerpiece of Revelation 12, the most prominent element, is the woman who is the ark of the covenant.
If she is more than an embodied idea, who is she?
Tradition tells us that she is the same person whom Jesus calls “woman” in John’s gospel, the reprise of the person Adam calls “woman” in the garden of Eden. Like the beginning of John’s gospel, this episode of the Apocalypse repeatedly evokes the Protoevangelium of Genesis. The first clue is that John—here, as in the gospel—never reveals this person’s name; he refers to her only by the name Adam gave to Eve in the garden: she is “woman.” Later in the same chapter of the Apocalypse, we learn also that, like Eve—who was “mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20)—the woman of John’s vision is mother not only to the “male child” but also to “the rest of her offspring,” further identified as “those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev 12:17). Her offspring, then, are all those who have new life in Jesus Christ. The New Eve, then, fulfills the promise of the old to be, more perfectly, the mother of all the living.
Revelation’s most explicit reference to the Protoevangelium, however, is the figure of the dragon, whom John clearly identifies with the “ancient serpent” of Genesis, “the deceiver of the world” (Rev 12:9; see Gen 3:13). The conflict that follows, then, between the dragon and the child clearly fulfills the promise of Genesis 3:15, when God swore to place “enmity” between the serpent “and the woman; between your seed and her seed.” And the anguish of the woman’s delivery seems also to come in fulfillment of God’s words to Eve: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Gen 3:16). (3)
John clearly intends for the woman of the Apocalypse to evoke Eve, the mother of all the living, and the New Eve, the person he identifies as “woman” in the gospel.
Mary, Mary, Reliquary?
We are left with the question, however, of how this woman can also be the revered ark of the covenant.
To understand this, we must first consider what made the ark so holy. It wasn’t the acacia wood or the gold ornaments. Nor was it the carved figures of angels. What made the ark holy was that it contained the covenant. Inside that golden box were the ten commandments, the Word of God inscribed by the finger of God; the manna, the miracle bread sent by God to feed His people in the wilderness; and the priestly rod of Aaron.
Whatever made the ark holy made Mary even holier. If the first ark contained the Word of God in stone, Mary’s body contained the Word of God enfleshed. If the first ark contained miraculous bread from heaven, Mary’s body contained the very Bread of Life that conquers death forever. If the first ark contained the rod of the long-ago ancestral priest, Mary’s body contained the divine person of the eternal priest, Jesus Christ.
What John saw in the heavenly temple was far greater than the ark of the old covenant—the ark that had radiated the glory cloud before the menorah, at the heart of the temple of ancient Israel. John saw the ark of the new covenant, the vessel chosen to bear God’s covenant into the world once and for all.
The Fathers of the early Church gave strong testimony to this identification of Mary with the ark of the covenant. Still, some interpreters raised objections, which the Fathers answered in turn.
Some objected, for example, because the woman’s birth pangs seemed to contradict the long-standing tradition that Mary suffered no pain in labor. Many Christians believe that, since Mary was conceived without original sin, she was exempt from the curses of Genesis 3:16; thus, she would feel no anguish in childbirth.
Yet the anguish of the woman does not necessarily stand for physical labor pains. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Saint Paul uses the pain of childbirth as a metaphor for spiritual suffering, for suffering in general, or for the longing of the world as it waits for ultimate fulfillment (Gal 4:19; Rom 8:22). The anguish of the woman of the Apocalypse could represent the desire to bring Christ to the world; or it could represent the spiritual sufferings that were the price of Mary’s motherhood.
Other interpreters worried that mention of the woman’s “other offspring” contradicted the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity. After all, how could she bear other children if she remained forever a virgin?… But again, these offspring need not be her physical children. The apostles often speak of themselves as “fathers” to the first generation of Christians (see 1 Cor 4:15). The “other offspring” of Revelation 12 are surely those “who bear testimony to Jesus,” and so become His brothers, sharing His Father in heaven—and His mother.
Still other interpreters are simply mystified by the details of John’s account—for example, when the woman was “given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness” (Rev 12:14). Such passages are open to a variety of interpretations. Some commentators believe that this depicts Mary’s divine protection from sin and from diabolical influence. Some, too, have seen it as a stylized narrative of the flight into Egypt (Mt 2:13-15), where the Holy Family was driven by the Herodian beast.
Heading for the Hills
The greatest difficulty for interpreters, however, seems to be the apparent uniqueness of John’s typological insight in Revelation. Where else, after all, is Mary called the ark of the covenant? Yet closer study of the New Testament shows us that John’s insight was not unique—more explicit than others, certainly, but not unique.
Along with John’s books, the writings of Luke are the Bible’s other great gold mine of Marian doctrine. It is Luke who tells the story of the angel’s annunciation to Mary, of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, of the miraculous circumstances of Jesus’ birth, of the Virgin’s purification in the temple, of her search for her Son at age twelve, and of her presence among the apostles at the first Pentecost.
Luke was a meticulous literary artist who could claim the additional benefit of having the Holy Spirit as his coauthor. Down through the centuries, scholars have marveled at the way Luke’s gospel subtly parallels key texts of the Old Testament. One of the early examples in his narrative is the story of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. Luke’s language seems to echo the account, in the second book of Samuel, of David’s travels as he brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The story begins as David “arose and went” (2 Sam 6:2). Luke’s account of the visitation begins with the same words: Mary “arose and went” (1:39). In their journeys, then, both Mary and David proceeded to the hill country of Judah. David acknowledges his unworthiness with the words “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9)—words we find echoed as Mary approaches her kinswoman Elizabeth: “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43). Note here that the sentence is almost verbatim, except that “ark” is replaced by “mother.” We read further that David “danced” for joy in the presence of the ark (2 Sam 6:14, 16), and we find a similar expression used to describe the leaping of the child within Elizabeth’s womb as Mary approached (Lk 1:44). Finally, the ark remained in the hill country for three months (2 Sam 6:11), the same amount of time Mary spent with Elizabeth (Lk 1:56).
Why, though, would Luke be so coy about this? Why not just come right out and call the Blessed Virgin a fulfillment of the type of the ark?
Cardinal Newman addressed this question in an interesting manner: “It is sometimes asked, Why do not the sacred writers mention our Lady’s greatness? I answer, she was, or may have been alive, when the apostles and evangelists wrote; there was just one book of Scripture certainly written after her death and that book (the book of Revelation) does (so to say) canonize and crown her.” (4)
Was Luke, in his quiet way, showing Mary to be the ark of the new covenant? The evidence is too strong to explain credibly in any other way.
The woman of the Apocalypse is the ark of the covenant in the heavenly temple; and that woman is the Virgin Mary. This does not, however, preclude other readings of Revelation 12. Scripture, after all, is not a code to be cracked, but a mystery we could never plumb in a lifetime.
In the fourth century, for example, Saint Ambrose saw the woman clearly as the Virgin Mary, “because she is mother of the Church, for she brought forth Him who is the Head of the Church”; (5) yet Ambrose also saw Revelation’s woman as an allegory of the Church herself. Saint Ephrem of Syria reached the same conclusion, fearing no contradiction: “The Virgin Mary is, again, the figure of the Church…. Let us call the Church by the name of Mary; for she is worthy of the double name.” (6) Saint Augustine, too, held that the woman of the Apocalypse “signifies Mary, who, being spotless, brought forth our spotless Head. Who herself also showed forth in herself a figure of holy Church, so that as she in bringing forth a Son remained a virgin, so the Church also should during the whole of time be bringing forth His members, and yet not lose her virgin estate.” (7)
As Mary birthed Christ to the world, so the Church births believers, “other Christs,” to each generation. As the Church becomes mother to believers in baptism, so Mary becomes mother to believers as brothers of Christ. The Church, in the words of one recent scholar, “reproduces the mystery of Mary.”
We can read all of these interpretations as a gloss on a striking passage of Irenaeus… For the male child is, without doubt,” the pure one opening purely that pure womb which regenerates men unto God.” And the “other offspring” we see in Revelation are just as surely those who are regenerated unto God, those who are born of the same womb as Jesus Christ.
Read in the light of the fathers, Revelation 12 can illumine our subsequent reading of all the New Testament passages that describe Christians as brothers of Christ. The Greek word for “brother,” adelphos, literally means “from the same womb.” From John and Irenaeus through Ephrem and Augustine, the early Christians believed that womb belonged to Mary.
The passage proves to be remarkably rich. Other Fathers saw the woman of the Apocalypse as a symbol of Israel, which gave birth to the Messiah; or as the people of God through all the ages; or as the Davidic empire, set in contrast to the Herodians and the Caesars.
She is all these things, even as she is the ark of the covenant. Yet while each of these interpretations suffices in a subsidiary or secondary way, none can fulfill the primary meaning of the text. All of these symbolic readings point beyond themselves to a primary meaning that is literal-historical. Or as Cardinal Newman put it. “The holy apostle would not have spoken of the Church under this particular image unless there had existed a Blessed Virgin Mary who was exalted on high and the object of veneration of all the faithful.” (8)
The woman of the Apocalypse must, in the words of another scholar, be “a concrete person who embodies a collective.” (9) The primary meaning, moreover—for the woman as for her male child—must belong to the individual, the historical person, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who at once became mother to Christ and the members of His body, the Church.
Dr. Scott Hahn is a former Protestant minister and now an internationally recognized Catholic theologian and apologist. He is Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and author of several books. This article was excerpted from Hail, Holy Queen, Doubleday, 2001.
(1) M. Barker, The Older Testament, London, SPCK, 1987.
(2) Newman, The Mystical Rose, Scepter, 1996, 21.
(3) Lucien Deiss, C.S.Sp., Mary, Daughter of Zion, Liturgical Press, 1972, 129.
(4) Mystical Rose, 23
(5) Thomas Livius, The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries, Burns
and Oates, 1893, 271.
(6) Ibid, 268.
(7) Ibid, 269.
(8) Mystical Rose, 20.
(9) Bernard J. Lefrois, S.V.D., The Woman Clothed with the Sun: Individual or Collective, Orbis Catholicus, 1954, 255-262.