Unique Ark of the Covenant design hails Mary as the 'Ark of the New Covenant,' housing the real presence of God

PLYMOUTH — Looking at the new altar, tabernacle and sanctuary at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, one’s eyes try to comb through every detail and design, trying to not miss a single facet of the renovated worship space.

Adorned with passages from Scripture and a tabernacle that replicates the Ark of the Covenant, there is much to behold. So much so that Our Lady of Good Counsel pastor Fr. John Riccardo recorded a 40-minute video explaining every detail about the new altar and why the parish installed it.

“Architecture in a church is supposed to teach; it is supposed to help us grow in faith and explain the faith to us,” Fr. Riccardo says in the video. “The high cross, stained-glass windows, they were meant to teach the faith to people who couldn’t read, something we take for granted. But everything in the church is trying to teach the faith, to help you enter more fully into Mass, a celebration with the angels.”

On Saturday, April 13, Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel to bless the new altar and sanctuary, which was renovated thanks to anonymous parish benefactors.

“By offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist on this altar, we dedicate this consecration,” Archbishop Vigneron said, shortly after rubbing chrism oil on the altar with his bare hands and placing relics beneath the altar. “When we celebrate at this altar, we gather around the one altar: Christ, the living stone, the center of the Lord’s temple. As we sprinkle this water ... we share in the Lord’s Passover. We bless this water we sprinkle on it, as it is a spiritual sign of the saving waters of baptism, by which we come to Christ.”

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron preaches April 13 at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, where he visited to bless and dedicate a new altar, tabernacle and sanctuary.

The new altar and sanctuary present an opportunity for the faithful at Our Lady of Good Counsel to learn the faith in greater detail, Fr. Riccardo said, as Catholics recall that every Mass celebrated at the new altar is a sacramental recreation of the first Mass offered on Holy Thursday.

“While it is not the case that people in our churches are illiterate like in the Middle Ages, we might not be as biblically literate as we should be,” Fr. Riccardo said. “A common refrain I hear from people in the pews is, ‘Father, I wish we knew the Bible better.’ The Scriptures are the soul of theology, they are revelations from God to us, where He is, and how He prefers to be worshiped.” 

“That principle still applies,” Fr. Riccardo continued. “We still have room to learn more. Therefore, having our places of worship teach something about the faith is still massively important.”

Archbishop Vigneron rubs chrism oil on the new altar at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth.

One eye-opening aspect of the new sanctuary is a unique tabernacle fashioned in the form of the biblical Ark of the Covenant, which housed the presence of God for the Jews in the Old Testament. 

In the video, Fr. Riccardo explains that the design choice honors Mary as the “new Ark of the Covenant” — one of the titles to Mary painted on Our Lady of Good Counsel’s walls — as she contains Jesus, the new covenant. 

To the left and right of the tabernacle are two biblical passages in Greek and Hebrew — a nod to the Church’s linguistic heritage. To the left in Hebrew is Genesis 28:8, “Where is the Lamb?” in which Isaac asks Abraham where the sacrifice meant for God is. To the right in Greek is John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God,” proclaimed by St. John the Baptist as Christ approaches the Jordan.

“At the center of these two passages from Scripture is the tabernacle,” Fr. Riccardo said. “These two walls are where you meet the person of Jesus, hidden under the appearance of bread. St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians said the Gentiles in the flesh were once separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, while the Jews knew God and were rescued. But in Christ, those who were once cut off were bought with the Blood of Christ. He made us both one, breaking down the dividing wall of Jerusalem, of hostility, as both Jews and Gentiles make up the new covenant.”

The sanctuary at Our Lady of Good Counsel features Scripture verses in Greek and Hebrew on either side of the tabernacle. On the left, in Hebrew, is Genesis 2:28: “Where is the lamb?” On the right in Greek is John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God.”

Fr. Riccardo said one doesn't need a theology background to appreciate the beauty of the altar. But taking the time to learn about the details of the structure allows people to fully appreciate the richness and beauty of the faith.

“You don’t get a full understanding of the faith by looking at it, but beauty is important,” Fr. Riccardo said. “Beauty awakens someone to wonder and awe, a way to look and say, ‘Wow, who made that?’ And the answer is God. 

“Beauty in the Church has a significant role,” Fr. Riccardo continued. “There are two doors to the faith: one by reason, the other is beauty.”

“So when you hear the explanation of our sanctuary, coupled with preaching and teaching, you will know why what is there is there. And through all of that, you will be more readily able to enter into the celebration of Mass.”

The finished sanctuary at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, with the words “I Thirst for You” above the tabernacle.