The word of the day is “Ark.” Many families pass down certain articles of past generations to their heirs. We may keep a family Bible, a porcelain dish, a picture or photo album, a uniform, a set of letters or even a handwritten recipe. These things are a physical connection to the past. By treasuring them, we call to mind the memory of our ancestors.
Material Reminders of God’s Grace
In our reading of Hebrews 9:1-7 (first reading), the apostle writes of physical artifacts that were kept in the most sacred place in the Temple. He writes of the Holy of Holies and says that it had “the golden censer and the Ark of the Covenant… in which were the golden pot that had the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant (OSB vs. 3-4). All of these were material reminders of God’s grace. Today we learn the significance of these seemingly insignificant articles and apply what we learn to the physical items that we revere in the Orthodox Church.
The Ark of the Covenant is a well-known representation of the earthly habitation of the Almighty’s holy presence among His people. Today’s reading describes the glorious cherubim that guarded the “Mercy Seat” of the Ark. Upon this golden throne of the Almighty, the priest would sprinkle the blood of sacrifice once a year for the atonement of sins (OSB vs. 9:7).
The Tablets of the Law
But within this Ark were remembrances of God’s care of the Israelites as they journeyed in the wilderness to the Promised Land. First were the tablets of the covenant that God gave to Moses. God had written His commandments in stone by His own finger. These tablets of the Law were remembrances of God’s mercy. By them, the Creator established the holy way of life of His Chosen People.
But these reminders of the covenant also recalled the people’s disobedience. When Moses ascended the mountain to receive them, the people committed the grievous sin of idolatry. They cast and bowed down before the Golden Calf at the same time that God was writing the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (OSB Exodus 32).
The Jar of Manna
A second item in the Ark was a golden jar filled with manna. This was a sample of the food that the Almighty supplied to His People in the wilderness. This bread from heaven appeared each morning and lasted for that day only—except on the Sabbath (OSB Exodus 16).
Keeping a jar of manna was a way of remembering the providence of God, who sustained the people on their journey. But it also called to mind the murmuring of the people against Moses and what they called this “worthless bread” (OSB 21:5). By this, they committed the apostasy of longing to return to their slavery and the “fleshpots” of Egypt (OSB 21:5).
The third item was Aaron’s rod that budded. This staff represented the grace of God given in the priesthood of Aaron. But it also recalled the sin of rebellion against God’s ordained. It was the recollection of wholesale rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron. When the people tired of their divinely appointed leaders, they joined together in a revolt under the priest Korah. But God caused the ground to swallow up the two hundred fifty rebels and their families.
Then when the people protested this punishment, God sent a sign of the divine authority of the Aaronite priesthood. Moses ordered that each head of a family should bring his staff to the Temple. It was to be placed with the others before the Ark of the Covenant. Overnight, it was Aaron’s rod that budded and produced ripe almonds. This was the sign that Aaron was God’s chosen (OSB Numbers 17:16-27).
With the tablets of the Law, the jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod, the people had tangible testimony to both God’s mercies and their sinfulness. Yet even when they disobeyed, murmured, and rebelled, God still bestowed His grace on them.
The People’s Sin: God’s Grace
For instance, in righteous anger, Moses broke the original tablets of the covenant when he saw the people dancing before the Golden Calf. For this great sin, God intended to destroy the whole people. But for the sake of the prayers of Moses, He relented (Exodus 32:1—35). Instead, the Almighty summoned Moses to receive the second set of tablets on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:104).
Then too, God sent poisonous serpents to bite those who murmured against the manna which sustained them. But when they repented, God instructed Moses to erect a copper (or bronze) serpent on a pole. Anyone who was bitten but looked on that serpent would live (OSB Number 21: 4-9).
Likewise, after Korah’s rebellion, the people expressed their fear of God and the holy things of the Temple. To allay their fears, God established the line of the Levites together with the Aaronic priesthood. These sacred officials would have sole charge of the rituals and liturgical items of the Temple. They were to guard them against any intrusion of outsiders and any violation of their holiness (Numbers 18:1-7).
In summary, we see that the artifacts in the Ark preserved the memory of God’s grace and mercy. They were physical things, yet they were filled with God’s holiness. So also, the icon and relics that we venerate are tangible remembrances of spiritual things. The Church has given them to us because we are physical and spiritual beings. If we cherish the keepsakes of our family ancestors, how much more should we treasure the things that call to mind the lovingkindness of God and the holiness of the saints.