Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 313

You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

Yesterday I wrote of the liturgy as an anchor of faith. With the cable of prayer that reaches through the veil our storm-tossed vessel holds its position in a turbulent sea.

As wave after wave of unexpected, unprecedented change falls upon us – the Atomic Age, the Computer Age, the Internet Age, the social media age – Catholics celebrate a ritual that remembers the 20th century as well as the first century and innumerable centuries before Christ.

Our calendar of prayer recalls saints of both recent and ancient past; in many cases we find their disciples – Benedictines, Franciscans, Sisters of Charity and so forth – are still among us. Faulkner might have been speaking of the Church when he said, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

In today’s readings I find another critically important link to a past that is, for all practical purposes, prehistoric; that is the cryptic verse from Psalm 110: “You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.”
Soon after King Solomon’s death in the ninth century bc, his kingdom split in two. King Jeroboam and the more prosperous “northern kingdom” of Israel separated from Judah. The southern kingdom with King Rehoboam, the legitimate heir of David, was poorer but retained the Holy City of Jerusalem, its fabulous temple, and the most sacred Ark of the Covenant.

The “Jerusalem establishment” of priests and prophets with their Davidic king denounced the worship of the northern kingdom as pagan idolatry. Jerusalem claimed to be the only legitimate place to offer sacrifice to God. A thousand years later it was still a sore spot between Jews and Samaritans. You’ll recall the Samaritan woman asking Jesus about that controversy.

The religion of the northern kingdom disappeared long ago, especially with the Syrian invasion and the deportation of the "lost tribes of Israel." The Jerusalem tradition continued in the Temple until 70AD. Some people might see that as the victory of the Establishment over the Spirit but we see the hand of God in that accident of history.
Jerusalem’s based its religious authority on the Ark of the Covenant and Solomon's temple, the Levitical priests who settled permanently in Jerusalem, the promise made to King David and his descendants, and on Genesis 14 and the story of Melchizedek:
When Abram returned from his defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were allied with him, the king of Sodom went out to greet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
Melchizedek, king of Salem,
brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. Genesis 14:17-20
The psalms were the official hymns of the Jerusalem Temple; and Psalm 110, a “royal psalm,” describes homage to the king. It is addressed by an inferior official to the king:
The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand, while I make your enemies your footstool. The scepter of your might: the LORD extends your strong scepter from Zion. Have dominion over your enemies! Yours is princely power from the day of your birth. In holy splendor before the daystar, like dew I begot you. The LORD has sworn and will not waver: “You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.”

Do you follow me so far? At the time of Christ, the official Jewish religion “anchored” its priesthood partly in Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem) who blessed Abraham and received a tithe of his trophies. He had neither children nor parents -- no descendants or family to link him to the present City -- but remained as a sacred presence in the Holy City. His priesthood preceded Levi and the levitical priesthood! A priest of Jerusalem was also a priest in the line of Melchizedek. 
So Jesus was crucified and raised up and revealed as the Son of God. There was enormous upheaval as many Jews joined with gentiles to create a new religion. But the authors of the New Testament insisted that Jesus did not represent a break with the past. They used innumerable citations from the Hebrew Scriptures to demonstrate Christian continuity with the past. 

On the contrary, Pharisaic scrupulosity, based in the synagogue rather than the temple, was not the true tradition. Christianity was not a kind of protestantism attempting to reform an unfaithful Jewish church; it was the true Church which was abandoned by pseudo-traditionalists who had lost their way. 
The Letter to the Hebrews recognizes Jesus not only as the Son of David and legitimate heir to the throne; he is also the high priest who enters God’s presence in the heavenly sanctuary to offer his own body and blood. Although Jesus of Nazareth was not a Levite he is a priest by way of his spiritual ancestor Melchizedek who, not incidentally, offered bread and wine. The Author of Hebrews saw in the King of Salem a critical link to Abraham, the Father of Faith, who preceded even Moses the Lawgiver. 

The Church, following Hebrews, has always capitalized on this prehistoric icon. When I was ordained in 1975 a choir of one hundred voices raised the roof with, “Tu es SacĂ©rdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchizedeck!” (You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedeck.)

The priesthood in the Catholic Church, like all our sacraments, is anchored through the veil of time to an ancient past. Despite the bewildering changes of the present moment, including the superficial changes in our religious practice (Latin to English, etc) the priesthood of the Catholic Church remains in aeternum as a witness to God's fidelity. 

When I bless a wounded warrior in the VA hospital, I reenact in a not-distant way the King of Salem’s blessing of the victorious Abraham. When I offer bread and wine on the chapel altar, I recall a ritual that has been presented millions of times through hundreds of years to the One God who presides over our history and remembers everything. 

Times have changed but our faith has not. Melchizedek still offers bread and wine, his body and blood, to the God of Abraham. 

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

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