IN THE LINE OF MELCHIZEDECH: A HOMILY ON WEDNESDAY, THIRD WEEK IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR II
At most priestly ordinations, we would have a reading from the letter to the Hebrews and we would have the responsorial psalm of today which says ‘You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedech.’ But who is Melchizedeck? Why in his line? How did he become a priest and what is so special about his priesthood?
Before we continue, it is important to understand that when the letter to the Hebrews speaks about a priest, it does so on three levels. On the one hand, it is referring to the priesthood of all baptized persons. Every baptized person is a priest, a prophet and a king. So, lay people should not think that ‘You are a priest forever’ only refers to Reverend Fathers and Bishops. But because Reverend Fathers and Bishops have been called for a special task and given a special office, this reading refers to them in a more direct way. However, whenever we hear about the High Priest, it is referring to Jesus Christ Himself. So, ‘You are a priest forever’ speaks first to Jesus Christ, before it speaks to anyone else. Jesus is the eternal high priest, and every other priest only shares in that priesthood.
But what has all of this got to do with Melchizedeck. Melchizedeck is an Old Testament figure who prefigures the priesthood of Christ in several ways. First, he was not a Levite, which means he did not come from the family of priests. In Old Testament days, only Levites could become priests. But according to our first reading, these priests offer repeated and endless sacrifices which can never take away sins. Christ is the eternal priest who offers a single sacrifice that takes away our sins. Secondly, Melchizedeck is said to have no father or mother, to have no beginning or end. This is also the identity of Christ, who even though He has a biological mother on earth, has an origin which is eternal. This is why He declares that even before Abraham, He already existed. Because He is eternal, His sacrifice is also eternal.
Thirdly, Melchizedech’s name means ‘King of Righteousness’, and so is Jesus. The Levitical priests were sinful themselves, so if they offered sacrifices for the sins of the world, they would also need someone to offer a sacrifice for their own sins, and this leads to an endless circle. Jesus is the sinless one who is capable of offering a sacrifice, without needing a sacrifice offered on His own behalf. Fourthly, the sacrifices offered by the Levitical priests involved the shedding of blood and the killing of so many animals. Jesus shed His blood once and for all on the cross and in the Holy Mass, this sacrifice is carried on by the sacrifice of bread and wine, which is what Melchizedeck used when he offered sacrifices in the book of Genesis.
The fifth point is that there were many Levitical priests, but Melchizedeck is one, and so is Jesus. Even though we have many people we call priests in the Catholic Church, we believe that there is only one priest, Jesus Christ. This is why we can say ‘You are a priest forever’. One would not say that to someone you know will die one day. But the priesthood of Jesus Christ is eternal. Every other priest, including all baptized christians, share in that one priesthood of Jesus Christ. Also, there was a big issue about whether Melchizedeck was circumcised or not. It is hard to say about a man whose origin is unknown. The Midrash resolves this matter by saying that he was circumcised from birth. This becomes a foretaste of the salvation which Jesus has won for us, which included both Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised. Baptism becomes our form of circumcision.
The same applies to the kingship and the prophethood of Jesus Christ. We see Jesus in the gospel sitting in the boat and teaching the people, and so does the priest at every Holy Mass. This is the prophetic ministry. So, when the priest preaches, he does not do so on his own authority. In fact, he has no authority of his own. He does so from the authority of that one prophet, Jesus Christ. Whether the priest is preaching or offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist, he does so with the understanding that there is only one priest, and all he does is share in that priesthood. It is all about Jesus and to him does the saying ultimately go ‘You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedeck.
When a man is ordained, he lies prostrate as a sign of total surrender and as a sign of death. He is to die to himself and Christ lives in him and works through him. He is no longer to do his own thing, but do Christ’s thing. It is no longer his show, but Christ’s show. It is not his priesthood, but the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
I am Fr. Ifeanyichukwu Henry Nwokoro, CSsR. I am your fellow child of God and this is my way of sharing my daily reflections with you. Please feel free to leave a comment, suggestion or question. Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.
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