The Ark of the Covenant, so meticulously described in the book of Exodus, has been an object of fascination for centuries, mostly because it was lost. What was it, really? A primitive radio for inter-galactic communication? A secret source of magical power from the earth's minerals? Today's first reading is the story of the first major loss of that mysterious Ark (later, David would retrieve it, and it would be lost again for good in the troubled history of the Kingdom). The Israelites and the Philistines were, as usual, pitted against each other in battle--a battle that the Israelites lost. Scratching their heads over this loss, the elders asked one another, "Why has the Lord permitted us to be defeated today?"
It wasn't really a question, because they didn't seek to discern the answer. All the question did was suggest to them a way to force a solution: "Let us fetch the ark of the Lord from Shiloh that it may go into battle among us and save us from the grasp of our enemies."
The author of the first Book of Samuel comments on this in the next line by simply referring to the "ark of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned upon the cherubim." In other words, "Foolish elders! They expect the ark itself to save them, and do not look to the transcendent Lord of hosts, whose throne the ark represents!" Even worse, it is the two corrupt sons of Eli who accompany the ark into battle. The ark was captured, and its guardians, Hophni and Phinehas, killed. So much for attempting to force God's hand.
But what about the saints who did similar things in dire circumstances? St. Clare is depicted with a monstrance holding the Eucharist itself, because she carried the Eucharist to the convent window when an invading army was bearing down on Assisi. (The army suddenly turned back.) Our own Mother Paula tucked a medal of St. Paul in the mail box when told that an official letter would be coming from the Archdiocese of New York, ordering the Daughters of St. Paul back to Italy. (The letter never came.) And millions of people, right now, in our own U.S. of A. have statues of St. Joseph buried in the yard of houses they desperately hope to sell.
Are all these guilty of the sin of Hophni and Phinehas? What makes the difference, when the outward actions are so similar to what the Bible condemns?
I think the deciding factor is one of faith: is the action co-natural with the relationship one already has with God, with St. Paul, with St. Joseph? What we are dealing with in the case of St. Clare and Mother Paula (I have reservations about attributing this in a blanket way to the case of all those statues of St. Joseph!), is a kind of sacramental gesture: it is a prayer made concrete. A prayer: not an attempted act of extortion. And a prayer comes with the disposition, "Not my will, but yours be done." Hophni and Phinehas and the elders who sent for the Ark seemed to forget all about that part.