The priesthood of Melchizedek

| Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson | October 24, 2018 | 0 Comments
Melchizedek meets Abraham

Russia, Moscow, Donskoy Monastery – detail The bas-relief, Melchizedek meets Abraham – the Bible, 1849, the sculptor A. V. Loganovsky, the remains of the ornaments of the old Cathedral of Christ the Savior iStock-Stanislav

In the second reading for Oct. 28, we find this fascinating statement attributed to Christ: “Thou art a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6). The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews drew this from Psalm 110, a prophecy about the coming of the Messiah.

We also encounter this mysterious order of priesthood in Eucharistic Prayer I in the Missal, when the celebrant prays that the Lord would accept “with a serene and kindly countenance … the offering of your high priest Melchizedek.”

What does this mean?

The Apostles, no doubt having been taught by Christ about his eternal identity and how his earthly mission was prefigured in the sacred texts of the Old Testament, reflected upon the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, the King of Salem, whom we meet in Genesis 14. There, Abraham, the father of the first covenant between God and his people, receives a blessing from Melchizedek, the priest of God Most High, which the Church has understood as an anticipation of the Eucharist. And Abraham then offers a tithe.

This is remarkable, because this mysterious priesthood bore no relationship to the priesthood of Aaron, from which the priesthood of Israel was derived. Both priesthoods were instituted by God, but Melchizedek’s was shrouded in mystery. “He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever” (Heb 7:3).

The Church has understood this priesthood to be a type of the eternal priesthood of Christ, rooted in the very life of the Blessed Trinity, superior in every respect to the priesthood of the Temple. Let no one claim that Christ’s priesthood resides in an order established by human beings, St. Ambrose teaches; established by God the Father himself, it is forever based on the mission of his Son.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus offers this lovely poem in “On the Birth of Christ,” a sermon he preached in Constantinople in 381. He reflects on the meaning of Melchizedek being without father or mother, which the Fathers came to see as a sign of the Incarnation of our Lord:

“The old has passed away, behold all things have been made anew.

The letter withdraws, the Spirit advances.

The shadows flee, the truth breaks in.

Melchizedek is summed up; the motherless becomes fatherless.

The first without a mother,

The second without a father,

The laws of nature are abrogated that the cosmos above be brought to perfection.”

“The motherless becomes fatherless.” Who is the one without a mother? The eternal Son of God, only-begotten from the Father. Who is the one without a father? Our Lord who was born of the Virgin Mary. Two natures, perfectly united in one Person, so that we might “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).

The sacramental life of the Church flows from this perfect source of priesthood. There is, in this divine order, properly only one Priest. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1546), we are taught that all of the baptized share in this one priesthood, because Christ has called us to be a kingdom of priests (Rev 1:6), to proclaim the goodness of the Lord and offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Pt 2:5, 9). There are two participations in this one priesthood: the ministerial to which bishops and priests are called, and the universal that embraces all of the faithful. But it is essential that every exercise of this priesthood, in both its participations, be ordered to the One True Priest, with the singlemindedness by which blind Bartimaeus in our Gospel today sought the Lord.

Faithful priesthood, in both participations, serves to renew the Church and advance Christ’s mission. And both will have a share in the “forever” aspect of this priesthood. Here priestly fraternity means the joy of celebrating the Divine Liturgy with our great High Priest, on earth and in heaven, for ages unending. Our great High Priest will welcome each of us.

And who is that regal old concelebrant with those exotic vestments, standing just behind the Lord? St. Peter whispers, “That would be Melchizedek.”

Msgr. Steenson is ordinary emeritus of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. He retired this summer from teaching at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.

Sunday, Oct. 28
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time


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