What is the Meaning of the Star of Bethlehem? Why Does Mary Ride a Donkey? Why is There No Room at the Inn? Typology of the New Ark and Christmas

Have you ever wondered about the Star of Bethlehem? If it represented a deeper meaning? There are a host of interesting videos on whether or not it existed. But have you ever wondered why it existed?

And what about the Blessed Mother riding a donkey to Bethlehem? We know that the Virgin Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem, but why?

Lastly, why is there no room at the inn for Joseph and Mary? We know the town of Bethlehem was packed for the Census. But what foreshadowed this event in the Old Testament?

The Answer? The Virgin Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant. All of the above happened to the Old Ark of the Covenant, as well.

Mary being the Ark of the New Covenant will completely change the way you understand the Christmas story. Hopefully, after reading this article you will see Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem in a completely different light, even the light of the Star of Bethlehem, itself.

Why does Mary Travel on a Donkey to Bethlehem?

This is one of the most iconic scenes in human history. It is at the core of the Christmas story. Joseph is walking on foot and leading the donkey. Mary, fully pregnant, is traveling on the donkey’s back.

Some dispute that the Blessed Mother even rode on the back of a donkey, as the Gospels do not mention it.[1] This idea is nevertheless corroborated by the apocryphal Protoevangelium of St. James:

The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will. And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed. (verse 17)

But what's going on behind the scenes? Is the Virgin Mary riding a donkey only because she is so close to giving birth?

Have you ever wondered if there was a hidden meaning behind simple scene? There is.

The answer begins with the curious incident with Uzzah. Do you remember Uzzah from 2 Samuel 6? Uzzah was killed just for just touching the Ark of the Covenant. Why?

Why Was a Man Killed for Touching the Ark of the Covenant?  

The Bible records a curious incident of a man named Uzzah being struck dead for touching the Old Ark of the Covenant. This occurred at 2 Samuel 6: 

(6) And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. (7) And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. (8) And David was angry because the Lord had broken forth upon Uzzah; and that place is called Pe′rez-uz′zah, to this day.

The reason for God’s smiting of Uzzah was that he “put forth his hand to the Ark”. Uzzah had some other things going against him, as well. 

Uzzah happened to be a Kohathite. Numbers 4:15 specifically designated the Kohathites to carry the Ark on poles. Unfortunately, Numbers 4:15 also specifically forbade the Kohathites from touching the Ark and "the holy things, or they will die." God always remembers his promises. Gulp.

Here’s the bottom line, though …

Adorazione dei Magi by Gentile da Fabriano (middle section)

The bottom line was this: Only the priests were allowed to carry the Ark of the New Covenant. The Ark was not supposed to be carried on a cart, pulled by oxen. 

Why? Well, would you like to be downwind of a team of oxen? Is that a fitting place for the golden box which carried the presence of God, Himself? No.

Also, the Ark was definitely not supposed to be touched by even lower-order priests, like Uzzah. The Ark was never supposed to be in situation in which it could tumble off a cart, requiring someone like Uzzah to “put forth his hand.”

Now, compare the travels of the Old Ark through Israel on an ox cart to the travels of the New Ark, the Virgin Mary. Any similarities?

Why Does Mary Ride to Bethlehem on a Donkey? Saint Joseph Carries the New Ark

Saint Joseph, therefore, is serving in the role of priest and carrying the Ark of the New Covenant on the back of a donkey. Joseph, as you will remember, is also a descendent of King David. It is fitting, then, that Joseph should accompany the Ark of the New Covenant, just as his forebear traveled with the Ark of the Old Covenant.

That’s why Mary travels on the back of a donkey.

This also speaks to the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. The Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies, was not to be touched by any man, except the High Priest. Even Joseph did not carry this title. The High Priest was the male that Mary carried in her womb. Only Jesus was permitted in this holy place.

Why Does the New Ark, the Virgin Mary, Go to Bethlehem? 

There’s more. What about Bethlehem? Was there perhaps a notable journey of David and the Old Ark to Bethlehem?


Here are a few verses of King David singing of the Old Ark’s journey to Bethlehem from Psalm 132, verses 1-7:

Remember, O Lord, in David’s favor,
all the hardships he endured;
how he swore to the Lord
and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob,
“I will not enter my house
or get into my bed;
I will not give sleep to my eyes
or slumber to my eyelids,
until I find a place for the Lord,
a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.”
Lo, we heard of it in Eph′rathah,
we found it in the fields of Ja′ar.
“Let us go to his dwelling place;
let us worship at his footstool!”

Wait, you might be saying, where’s the mention of Bethlehem? In the time of King David, Bethlehem was known as Eph′rathah, or it is elsewhere named in the Psalms “Ephratah-Bethlehem”.[2][3]

Also, what’s David mean when he says “I will not enter my house or get into my bed … until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob”? In short, it means that the Old Ark will be in want of a dwelling place or a roof over its head. More on that in a moment …

Lastly, there’s a great amount of humility contained in this comparison. This Ark of God, which traveled through Israel with King David, himself, and which was carried before all of Israel’s victorious armies, is now a simple woman, on a the back of a plain donkey, being led by a carpenter.

We should be struck by the majesty contained in such a simple caravan.

But there’s still more. This also tells us something about the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

Perpetual Virginity of Mary - Mary & Joseph: No Ordinary Marriage

Remember, this is no ordinary marriage between Mary and Joseph. Joseph never physically consummates the marriage covenant with Mary. The Holy Spirit enters Mary’s womb, but never mortal man. Mary’s womb is the birthplace of God. It is the new Holy of Holies. No mortal man is permitted there, except the high priest, namely Jesus. It is the most sacred of sacred grounds.

This is why Uzzah was smote for touching the old Ark of the Covenant. Uzzah wasn’t just trespassing on sacred ground. It was as if he had violated the Ark’s virginity.

Joseph does not make the mistake of Uzzah! Joseph has no children by Mary. Mary remains a virgin.

The Virgin Mary's Perpetual Vow of Virginity

In fact, Mary indicates that she has taken a perpetual vow of virginity. The Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible gives us the following for at Luke 1:34: “And Mary said to the angel: ‘How shall this be done, because I know not man?’”

“I know not man” is the literal translation from the Greek text. Other translations try “because I am a virgin” or “because I know not a man,” but these alternatives don’t quite cut the mustard.

Mary’s question to the angel makes no sense unless Mary had professed a vow of virginity.

Just a few verses back at verse 27, we are told that Mary and Joseph are already “espoused”. Mary and Joseph already have what would be akin to a ratified marriage in Jewish culture. They were married. Joseph would have had the right to the marriage bed.

How can we account then for Mary’s confusion? Mary did not say simply: “How can I bear a son? Since I have not yet known a man but intend to soon enter into relations with Joseph.” She would have just presumed that the child would be the son of Joseph.

If Mary and Joseph were part of an ordinary Jewish marriage, she would not be asking about the father of the child. Joseph would be the father of the child, unless they were to be celibate in marriage.

Normally, after the espousal the husband would go off and prepare a home for his new bride and then come and receive her into his home where the union would be consummated. This is precisely why Joseph intended to “divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19) when he later discovered she was pregnant.

This background is significant because a newly married woman would not ask the question “How shall this be?” She would know. Unless, of course, that woman had taken a vow of virginity and the vow was continuing into the marriage.

Mary believed the angel’s message in faith, but had no idea how this was going to be accomplished in light of her vow. This also indicates she was not planning on the normal course of events for her future with Joseph.

Christmas and the New Ark: Why Was There No Room at the Inn?

Remember how I said I would return to King David’s somewhat confusing statement from Psalm 132: “I will not enter my house or get into my bed … until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place” for the Ark? Here we go.
There is another strange detail that we take for granted in the Christmas Story. Why was there no room at the inn in Bethlehem for Mary and Joseph?

It was foretold in the Old Testament that there would be no room for Mary and Joseph at the inns of Bethlehem. In addition to Psalm 132, the readings from the Christmas liturgy give us a special insight into the Nativity Story.

The First Reading from Morning Mass on December 24 (Cycle A) comes from 2 Samuel 7:

When King David was settled in his palace, and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent!” Nathan answered the king, “Go, do whatever you have in mind, for the LORD is with you.” But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said: “Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Should you build me a house to dwell in?’"

King David returns home from his victories on the battlefield. These victories were won because David's armies carried the Ark of the Covenant before them into battle. Now David wonders at how the Ark of God dwells in a tent, while he dwells in a palace. 

So what do King David's musings have to do with the Christmas story which won't occur for another 1,000 years?

We covered some of David’s journeys with the Ark of the Covenant in this article, “What’s Really Happening at the Visitation?” 

Here, at last, the Ark is done at the end of its long journey. Its journey began at Mount Sinai, where God through Moses first ordered it constructed. The Ark wandered with the Israelites through their forty years in the desert. The Ark crossed the River Jordan ahead of them and parted the waters, just as before with the Red Sea. The Ark was carried before all of Israel’s armies through battle after battle. And now, it has finally arrived in Jerusalem.     

So, back to David dwelling in a palace while the Ark of God dwells in a tent. Mary is the New Ark, and where is she forced to dwell? There is no room for Mary and Joseph at the Inn of Bethlehem. The New Ark dwells in a stable. Neither the Old Ark nor the New Ark are permitted a palace, but must dwell outdoors. 

Or, the New Ark dwells in a cave to give birth ...

Never fear! The First Reading from December 24, still from 2 Samuel 7, goes on to make a promise:

The LORD also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you. And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his Kingdom firm. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Your house and your Kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.

The Lord says he will raise up an heir to David "sprung from [his own] loins." But how can this be? King David has been dead from a thousand years when Mary gives birth in Bethlehem. Also, the Lord says that He will be father to the "heir". How can the heir be the child of both King David and God? 

Because Christ is born into the family of David. Mary is a descendant of David, as the Angel Gabriel confirms at Luke 1:31-33. Also, Christ is the Son of God, confirming both parts of the prophesy. Through the New Ark and Christ, therefore, the throne of David "shall stand firm forever.

What is the Meaning of the Star of Bethlehem? 

The Star of Bethlehem does some odd things. The Wise Men are able to follow it until it comes to a rest above Jesus’ manger. The star is usually depicted as a tower of light shining down on the nativity scene.

Why is all this happening? We take all this for granted. It’s just God doing His thing, right? It’s just miracles. Sure, but why this particular combination of miracles?

Here is the description of these events from the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:

When [the Wise Men] had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

Why is the light from the star following Mary and Joseph? Do you remember light following anyone else in the Bible?

Remember the Shekinah, the “Glory Cloud”? It's also described in the article on the Visitation, above. The Glory Cloud was a tower of light and fire which “overshadowed” the Ark of the Covenant.

The Shekinah was a brilliant beacon of light at the center of the Israelite’s camp. If the shepherds or their flocks strayed too far from the Israelite camp, the light of the Glory Cloud would lead them back.

The Shekinah stayed with Israelites and the Ark of the Covenant for some time, but eventually left them. After the Jews returned from their captivity, a modest Second Temple was completed in 515 BC. But, the visible presence of God as the Shekinah cloud of glory did not return.

The Shekinah was prophesied to return, however.

The 17th blessing of the daily Amidah (Standing) prayer expresses the longing in the Jewish heart that the Shekinah will one day return: “Blessed are You, God, who returns His Presence (Shechinato) to Zion.”

The Prophet Jeremiah also prophesies the return of the Glory Cloud AND the Ark of the Covenant at 2 Maccabees 2. After hiding the Ark of the Covenant, he rebukes those that followed him, saying the following:

When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall be unknown until God (1) gathers his people together again and (2) shows his mercy. And then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.” (2 Maccabees 2:7-8) [numbers added]

So when did the Shekinah return? When do we a see a tower of light and fire rising above the Ark of the New Covenant? A tower of light rising above a place that is "specially consecrated"? That is, when do we see a tower of light above the Virgin Mary?

That’s right! The Star of Bethlehem.

The light of the star, the tower of light, illuminates the birth of the “light of the world”.

We have already discussed how the Gospel of Luke connects Mary to the Shekinah. The Holy Spirit “overshadowed” the Virgin Mary when Jesus was conceived in her womb. The word “overshadow” was used in the Old Testament specifically to describe the Shekinah Glory Cloud resting above the Ark of the Covenant. Now it rests upon the Ark of the New Covenant, Mary. 

Also, in her Magnificat, Mary further fulfills Jeremiah's prophecies. She describes the (1) gathering of God's people and (2) God's "mercy" twice to Elizabeth, who has already described the Virgin Mary as the Ark:

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.

But How is the Glory Cloud a Light to All Nations

But the original Shekinah stood as a light to all Israel. The conception of Jesus was a private affair, as was the Visitation. When does the Shekinah shine again for all Israel to see? Even for all the world to see?

That's right ...

The Shekinah returns as the Star of Bethlehem. Notice the strange behavior of the Star of Bethlehem:
  • The star is a tower of light “overshadowing” the Virgin Mary and the entire Holy Family before, during, and after the Nativity.
  • The star is a sign to all Israel, to the shepherds and even to the evil King Herod; and
  • The star is visible to the entire world! The Magi, the Kings of the East, are guided by the star to Christ’s manger.

What does this tell us about Christ and His mission? Christ will bring light to all of Israel and the entire world!

Also, as amazing as Moses was, Jesus is far superior. He is God. The Ark of Jesus, too, is far superior to the Ark of Moses. She is a human being. Even Moses’ Shekinah, as amazing a sight as it was, it is also far exceeded by Jesus’ Shekinah, the Star of Bethlehem. Moses had a tornado. Jesus had an entire star!

Footnotes: What is the Meaning of the Star of Bethlehem? Why No Room at the Inn? Why Does Mary Ride a Donkey? Typology of the New Ark and Christmas

[1] Some also suggest that Joseph would have been too poor to possess a donkey. This is due to the fact that the Holy Family was allowed to offer the less costly of the sacrificial options at the Presentation at the Temple. There are other possibilities, however, including that Joseph simply borrowed the donkey. One can easily imagine a kind person letting the pregnant mother borrow a donkey for her long ride. Additionally, there was already talk spreading about Mary's baby and her virgin birth. Ensuring Mary's safe travels may have been paramount in the minds of many in Nazareth.

[2] Biblical scholar Joseph Addison Alexander argues for this understanding: “The only explanation, equally agreeable to usage and the context, is that which makes Ephratah the ancient name of Bethlehem (Genesis 48:7), here mentioned as the place where David spent his youth, and where he used to hear of the ark, although he never saw it till long afterwards, when he found it in the fields of the wood, in the neighbourhood of Kirjathjearim, which name means Forest town, or City of the Woods. Compare 1 Samuel 7:1 with 2 Samuel 6:3-4."

[3] Another Biblical scholar, Christopher Wordsworth, states the following: “The Psalmist says, that David himself, even when a youth in Bethlehem Ephratah, heard of the sojourn of the ark in Kirjathjearim, and that it was a fond dream of David's boyhood to be permitted to bring up the ark to some settled habitation, which he desired to find (Psalms 132:5).” 

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