The Ark is Not the Covenant
Decades ago, during a symposium, a famous atheist (now deceased), like a brilliant and bombastic fundamentalist preacher, raged against the historical sins of the Church—real, imagined, and confused. The truth hurts. It was a magnificent performance, causing the crowds to cheer. But the rhetorical marksman was shooting at the wrong target if he hoped to make his case for atheism.
Among the many images of the Church is the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was the decorated chamber that carried the tablets of the Ten Commandments. In every Catholic church, the tabernacle of the Blessed Eucharist is the Ark of the New and Everlasting Covenant of the saving Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. The parable of the talents demonstrates the duty of Christians to live and proclaim the Word of the Covenant. But we frequently overlook that the Ark is the vessel, not the Covenant.
The atheist targeted the Ark, not the Covenant. He identified the crimes committed by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages. He condemned the Spanish Inquisition (but didn’t mention the lies of the English Black Legend—see “The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition”. He deplored Christian participation in the African slave trade and the forced conversion of the indigenous natives (so did Pope John Paul II). He criticized the Vatican Lateran Treaty with Mussolini and the Church’s Concordat with Hitler (better left to debate among historians). He suggested—incorrectly—anti-Semitism was a matter of Catholic doctrine until the reign of Pope John XXIII.
Our atheist friend would have a field day targeting the widespread injustices and failures on display today. We cannot ignore the turmoil, injustice, evil, confusion, and clericalism throughout the Church over her history. But the Ark besmirched by sin is not the Covenant. The immorality of the hierarchy and laity obscure but do not invalidate the teachings of Jesus. Instead, the sins indict the evil-doers and highlight the need to renew our participation in God’s Covenant.
The atheist’s erudite criticism of the Church’s history has a surprising unintended effect. A couple of his shots were bull’s eyes, a few off-center, and several wildly off-mark. But he unwittingly used the law of God inscribed on his heart to criticize the evil he identified—real, imagined, or distorted. His vague sense of the precepts of Natural Law—based on human reason and clarified by the Commandments—critiques all human behavior. The Ten Commandments of the Covenant validate any truths of his critique. Good for him! He established common ground to continue a robust conversation.
Catholics are the successors of the Old Testament Chosen People. The Church is the new Ark of the Covenant. As we read the Bible, Scripture does not whitewash moral flaws and gross infidelities. (The Bible reports that apostate Jews sacrificed their children to the demon Moloch.) Neither should we refuse to acknowledge evils committed throughout the history of the Church as we avoid the hubris of present-mindedness and pay attention to our own sins.
Maybe the atheist was crestfallen. His bitterness suggests he expected infallible saints to populate the Church rather than sinners. When he discovered that members of the Ark were sinners, he walked away from the Covenant, refusing to acknowledge the gifts God offers. Too bad. Our atheist friend buried the talent of his powerful intellect and did not allow it to serve God.
In the entanglements of life, we must expect innumerable errors, stupidity, and grievous sins. There would be no need to declare saints if sanctity was commonplace. As current events teach us, in times of conflict and war, there is plenty of blame to assign. The Ark of the Church has blemishes, but the content of the Ark—the Deposit of Faith—is not among them. Jesus is the light of the world (cf. Jn. 8:12). He wants us to join Him.
We need Jesus, the Head of the Church, His spotless Bride, and the Ten Commandments to evaluate our lives. Perhaps our atheist friend was a wee bit afraid to assess his life in light of the Ten Commandments he unwittingly invoked. Catholics call the ensemble of measuring our thoughts, words, and deeds against the Ten Commandments “Confession.”
Confession is among the many gifts God’s Covenant offers. It’s no secret that the Sacrament of Penance has fallen on hard times, neglected by most Catholics. (Another fact of shame.) But if we’re interested in changing the world and confronting the corruption in the Church, let’s begin by looking in the mirror and asking, “How did I mess up my life and peace of soul with sins that soil the Ark?”
Like our atheist friend, someday we will enter into eternity to present ourselves for our Particular Judgment. We will take an inventory of the many talents God gave us, including the wondrous gift of Confession. Our memories will flash the words of Jesus: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Mt. 25:29-30) A sobering prospect. We still have time to dust off the Ark and rediscover His words of forgiveness.
Our atheist friend applied a garbled version of the law of God written on his heart to criticize the sins and failures of the Ark. He did not insult Jesus (at least in this symposium) and His Covenant. Here are the words he did not ridicule:
- “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:24)
- “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt. 11:29)
- “Has no one condemned you? …Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (Jn. 8:10)
Maybe our adversary wasn’t far from the Kingdom of God after all. May he rest in peace.
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