Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How the cherubim witness to Mary's Immaculate Conception

The Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception refers to the Virgin Mary conceived without the stain of original sin. This is the defining text from the papal encyclical Ineffabilis Deus from 1854:
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
While the definition was pronounced in 1854, the teaching is firmly rooted in divine revelation, both in Scripture and Tradition in the early Church through today. In this particular article, I do not intend on giving a full apologetic on the validity of this dogma. For a fuller Biblical and Traditional treatment of the dogma, I recommend reading the full encyclical Ineffabilis Deus or good Catholic books on Mary, such as Luigi Gambero's Mary and the Fathers of the Church. Other good web resources on the Immaculate Conception include ScriptureCatholic.com or various articles at PhilVaz.com.

The specific defense of the Immaculate Conception I intend to give here is the witness of the cherubim in Scripture. I find it to be a strong signpost pointing to Mary's incompatibility with sin. And since I have not seen this angle presented explicitly, I've elected to review it here.

First, I will briefly explain the concept of typology in Scripture. A type (or figure) in the Old Testament that has its fulfillment in a New Testament counterpart is said to be the NT's antetype. An example may help. Romans 5:14 tells us of "Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come." Romans 5:18 continues the idea: "Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men."

A characteristic about typology is that the NT type is always the superior, fulfilled version of the OT antetype. We see this explained elsewhere in Scripture. Examples include Haggai 2:9 which says: "Greater will be the future glory of this house than the former, says the Lord of hosts." Or 2 Corinthians 3:11 For if what faded away came with splendor, what is permanent must have much more splendor."

You see the parallel between the two characters, Adam and Jesus, one who brought death and One Who brought life. Jesus and Adam are the first of their kind, yet Jesus is the superior. Jesus Himself gives a clear example of typology in John 6:49-50 when He says: "Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die." The manna in the OT could only sustain physical life for a time. Jesus, the Bread of Life–the NT type of the manna–sustains eternal spiritual life and is thus the superior type.

With that in mind, and before I proceed to the witness of the cherubim, recall that Mary is the type of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark contained manna, Aaron the priest's rod, and the ten commandments. Mary contained the new manna, Jesus, Who is also the true High Priest and the Word made flesh. In 2 Sam 6:9, David exclaimed: ""How can the ark of the Lord come to me?" This parallels the words of Elizabeth in Luke 1:43 when she exclaimed: "[W]hy is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" There are at least a dozen strong parallels between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant. A good chart depicting this can be seen at www.agapebiblestudy.com. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly confirms the teaching that Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant (CCC#2676).

What is important to know about the Ark in my apologetic, is that God commanded Moses to build the Ark and include figures of two cherubim:
Exodus 25:18,22 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat... There I will meet with you ... from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony.
Notice how the cherubim flank both sides of the place God dwells. And Scripture tells us that the high priest could not even approach the Ark unless he first be purified from sin (cf. Lv 16:2-11; Hb 9:3-7). Keep that in mind a moment.

Another antetype of Mary, less-common in apologetics for her Immaculate Conception, is the Garden of Eden, another "dwelling place" of God. Here are two Early Church Fathers supporting Mary as type of the Garden:
O virgin who surpasses Eden's garden of delights!
St. Theodotus of Ancyra, On the Nativity of Our Savior, 21

God’s Eden is Mary; in her there is no serpent that harms...., no Eve that kills, but from her springs the Tree of Life that restores the exiles of Eden.
St. Ephraim, On the Annunciation of the Mother of God, hymn 3:302
Ineffabilis Deus makes reference to Mary as the type of "that garden enclosed on all sides, which cannot be violated or corrupted by any deceitful plots." The encyclical refers to Song of Songs 4:12 which speaks of a "bride" who is "a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed" as well as other references to this bride as a "garden" throughout the chapter. That particular verse is also a testimony to Mary's perpetual virginity and has been understood as such by the Church.3 Mary is also a "bride" to the Holy Spirit because their union brought forth the child Jesus.4 But I bring this up to further support the image of "garden" with Mary.

Now remember, Mary whom God chose as His dwelling place, is the superior type of her OT counterparts.

Draw your attention to the Genesis 3 account of the Fall. Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit. Adam is punished for this and they are exiled from the Garden:
Genesis 3:23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.
The very next verse reads:
Genesis 3:24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.
Notice once again, how the cherubim are assigned to guard the dwelling place of God–the Garden of Eden. And more importantly, notice how when Adam and Eve exhibited sin, they were vanquished from the Garden.5

It's also important to note another parallel between the temple in which was the Ark and the Garden. The cherubim guarded the east gate of the Garden. And the east gate is also the entrance to the temple (Ez 43:1-5, 1 Kg 6:22-35).

Father Pascale Parente described the origin of the word cherubim, which is derived from the singular word "KeRUBH." Fr. Parente wrote:
Scholars differ widely on the meaning and the origin of this word. It seems that this was originally an Assyrian word which was later given a definite meaning by the Hebrews. Assyrians, Persians and Egyptians paid great honor to protective deities... These protective deities were the common guardians of temples and tombs, where some such statues can still be seen. ... In Sacred Scripture, the Cherubim appear as heavenly custodians and protectors of holy places and holy things.6
Essentially, this confirms what the testimony of Scripture already suggests–the cherubim protect the holy.

With that in mind, return to Mary as the Ark–the Ark which was flanked by two cherubim. And then return to the other "dwelling place of God" which is the Garden, also guarded by cherubim. Both localities are guarded from the presence of sin. The priest had to purify himself from sin before approaching the Ark. The Garden was kept free from sin and guarded in the same way as the Ark–by the cherubim.

Therefore, we see the powerful witness of the cherubim–that Mary is without any stain of sin, including original sin, since God tells us in divine revelation that she is the untainted Ark and Garden, both guarded from sin by the cherubim. And Mary, as the NT type of these protected OT places, is protected from sin in an even more splendorous way.

[EDIT: I originally posted this briefly for part of a day back in December, but removed it because I tried to get it published. I had some nice comments from a couple publications, but they were interested in other things at this time.]

1Quoted in Malty, Fr. Tadros Y Malaty, St. Mary in the Orthodox Concept, 1975, p. 28
2Quoted in Ibid, p. 58
3The teaching in Ineffabilis Deus linking Sg 4:12 is by no means a novel idea. For example, St. Jerome (d. 420) explicitly says Sg 4:12 refers to Mary (Letter to Pammachius). There is also the interpretation of St. Peter Chrysologus (d. 450) (Sermon 145).
4See Pope Paul VI's Gaudete in Domino for a magisterial example teaching Mary's espousal to the Holy Spirit.
5One may ask how, if sin is incompatible with the Garden, was the serpent there? Certainly the devil, whom tradition says is represented in the figure of the snake, was not in the Garden in a residential sense as were Adam and Eve. The devil, as pure spirit, certainly did not have the same presence with God in the Garden that pre-Fall Adam and Eve did. The passage should be understood such that the devil's wiles had a certain influence of Adam and Eve, as represented by the suggestion of the snake, but we should not conclude he communed with God in the Garden as did God's children. To support this, consider the devil tempting Jesus in the desert (eg. Lk 4:1-13). In that scene, the devil in a proximate sense is "in the presence of God," but in the spiritual sense he remains eternally distant.
6Parente, Fr. Pascale, The Angels in Catholic Teaching and Tradition, Tan Books, Charlotte, NC, 1973, p. 52-52


  1. How is it that Mary can be the "type of the Ark of the Covenant" when the NT never mentions this? The Ark also contained the rod of Aaron and the 10 commandments. How does Mary fulfill these things?
    What you need to look at is Luke 1:47 where she admits to being a sinner by her acknowledgment that God is her Savior.

  2. Hi, Anonymous. The Ark contained the rod of Aaron the priest, and Mary contained Jesus the fulfillment of the OT priesthood. The Ark contained the 10 commandments which were the word of God, and Jesus is the Word (John 1). So the NT does "mention" Mary as Ark, one just has to utilize theological and typological eyes to see it. Also, in Luke 1:47, Mary does not admit to being a sinner. The text says:

    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior

    That is not the same as saying "I am a sinner." It merely says she is saved by God. In Catholic theology, we believe Mary to have been "in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race... preserved free from all stain of original sin." (Ineffabilis Deus) So Mary is saved from sin by Christ's work, she is just saved in an exceptional way, but nevertheless, she can call God her Savior, for without Him, she is less than an atom.

  3. Sam- If Mary is acknowledging God as her Savior then she was aware of sin in her life otherwise it makes no sense for her to call God her Savior.
    Take the Lord Jesus Who we know did not sin. Did He ever acknowledge God as His Savior?

    There are other complications with Mary being sinless. Why does not Jesus point out that she was sinless to His disciples? Why don't the apostles in their writings ever mention she was without sin?

  4. Hi again, Anonymous. My previous comment explained why Luke 1:47 doesn't automatically mean Mary sinned, so I won't rehash that. As to "why didn't Jesus point out" this or that teaching is a speculative question whose answer would not affect the truth of a doctrine. Jesus did not point out the consubstantiality of the Trinity, the precise nature of his hypostatic union, or what books should end up in the NT canon either, but Christians have held those truths derived from divine revelation nonetheless. And again, I think the truth of Mary's conception IS communicated by God - I think one just needs to be willing to delve into the typology revealed in divine revelation to see such truths.

  5. Sam--Its going to take more than just typology to prove that Mary is a type of ark. There are things about the ark that do not fit for Mary. One is that the ark was never brought to Bethlehem.
    If Luke 1:47 does not mean she sinned then what does it mean?

  6. It may take more than typology to prove that to certain people. Also, typology does not mean every waking facet must be parallel, such as how Jesus can be the type of Adam (Rom. 5:14) even though Adam was never in Bethlehem either, had a wife, and wore a leaf. Yet Paul has no problem recognizing the typology even if Adam had a wife and Jesus didn't, or that Jesus was in Bethlehem and Adam wasn't, that Adam wore a leaf and Jesus didn't, etc... The same goes for Jesus being a type of the lamb, even though he didn't have white fur and bleat. I think the chart I link to in the above article shows quite persuasively that Mary is the Ark. Pointing out a difference in the face of numerous fitting parallels is neither here nor there, and is to operate under a false notion of typology.
    I also answered your Luke 1:47 question two comments ago. God bless! :)

  7. All you have asserted about Mary not sinning is that she was by "the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race... preserved free from all stain of original sin." (Ineffabilis Deus. All this is, is an assertion. Its not apostolic because the Scripture never makes such a claim about her.
    There is powerful evidence from the texts of Scripture that Jesus is the second Adam. Just as Adam represents fallen man Jesus represents the new redeemed man. Never do we see any parallels of Mary to Eve in the NT.
    If anyone fulfills a type of Ark it would be the Lord Jesus. In Him the fulfillment of the OT is found.

  8. I appreciate your dismay, however, Mary could not have been the spouse of the Holy Spirit, the mother containing the Word of God without freedom from sin. Nothing that intimately associated with God could survive the encounter otherwise.
    Jesus was not the God container, He was not the ark, He was God.
    Get beyond the jot and tittle enough to taste the meat. sounds like your milk teeth have changed to permanent adult canines!

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful work. Thank you. I have never heard or thought of this.