Who was Melchizedek? I hear his name mentioned in the Eucharistic prayer at Mass.
Melchizedek (also spelled Melchisedech) appears in the Book of Genesis (14:18-20). Abraham had defeated King Chedorlaomer and the other three allied kings, and then was met by Melchizedek, the Canaanite King of Salem and a priest of God Most High. (Interestingly, the word Melchizedek means, My king is righteousness, and Salem, peace. ) Melchizedek presented bread and wine to Abraham, and blessed him 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 (Genesis 14:19-20). Keep in mind that bread and wine were customarily offered in sacrifice among the first fruits of the earth in thanksgiving to the Creator. Although Melchizedek is technically a pagan priest, he recognizes the one supreme deity, using the title, God Most High, just as the Jewish people would. Accepting this blessing and offering, Abraham gives to Melchizedek a tithe of one-tenth the booty from his campaign. After this encounter, however, Melchizedek disappears from the Genesis story.
Melchizedek is mentioned again in Psalm 110: The Lord has sworn, and he will not repent: You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek (110:4). This psalm is considered one of the most important of the Messianic psalms, identifying the forthcoming Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, as King, Priest, and Conqueror.
Perhaps St. Paul, the traditional author of the Letter to the Hebrews, was the greatest promoter of Melchizedek. (See Chapters 5-9.) St. Paul used the person of Melchizedek to illustrate the doctrine of the sacrificial priesthood as established by Christ. St. Paul begins, Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins (Hebrews 5:1). Despite human weakness, a man is called by God to be a priest.
St. Paul then compares and contrasts the priesthood of Melchizedek with that of Aaron, the Levitical Priesthood: The priesthood of Aaron was based on his ancestry from Abraham. The priests following Aaron were of his family, the House of Levi, and appointed priests because of their heredity. Also, these priests offered the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.
In contrast to the Levitical Priesthood is the Priesthood of our Lord, which Melchizedek foreshadows. First, Melchizedek has no genealogy in the Old Testament, and his priesthood is not based on heredity. Christ, like Melchizedek, is a priest by divine appointment and His priesthood does not depend upon hereditary ties.
Second, Abraham recognized the priest-king Melchizedek by receiving his blessing and offering him tithes. An act of such humility signified that the priesthood which would descend from Abraham is of lesser stature than that of Melchizedek. This act also foretold that the Levitical Priesthood would be replaced by the greater, perfect, and royal priesthood of Christ.
Third, Melchizedek offered bread and wine in thanksgiving to God, prefiguring what our Lord did at the Last Supper.
Fourth, Melchizedek was a member of the nations. Christ came to save not just the House of Israel, but the people of all nations. Moreover, Melchizedeks very name and title mean king of Justice, King of Peace ; Jesus entered the world to bring justice and peace.
Finally, Melchizedek was not a priest of the Old Covenant. Christ as a priest offered the perfect sacrifice for sin and made the new, perfect, and everlasting covenant with His own blood. In all, the Letter to the Hebrews elaborates upon the historical Melchizedek and weaves an image which foreshadows our Lord, who would fulfill the Old Testament covenant and priesthood.
The early Church Fathers clearly understood and accepted this imagery. St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) in his Letter to Cecil, taught, Also in the priest Melchizedek we see the Sacrament of the Sacrifice of the Lord prefigured, in accord with that to which the Divine Scriptures testify, where it says: And Melchizedek, the King of Salem, brought out bread and wine, for he was a priest of the Most High God; and he blessed Abraham. That Melchizedek is in fact a type of Christ is declared in the psalms by the Holy Spirit, saying to the Son, as it were from the Father: Before the daystar I begot You. You are a Priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek. The order certainly is that which comes from his sacrifice and which comes down from it: because Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High God; because he offered bread; and because he blessed Abraham. And who is more a priest of the Most High God than our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when He offered sacrifice to God the Father, offered the very same which Melchizedek had offered, namely bread and wine, which is in fact His Body and Blood.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures (Mystagogia 5) also referenced Melchizedeks sacrifice as a type which prefigured the Holy Eucharist.
The Church honors this image of Melchizedek. The Catechism teaches, the Christian tradition considers Melchizedek, priest of God Most High, as a prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ, the unique high priest after the order of Melchizedek; holy, blameless, unstained, by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified, that is, by the unique sacrifice of the cross (#1544, cf. 50). Moreover, the Church sees in the gesture of the king-priest Melchizedek, who brought out bread and wine, a prefiguring of her own offering (#1333). For this reason, the priest in Eucharistic Prayer I, prays after the consecration, look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchisedech.
Saunders, Rev. William. "A Priest of God Most High." Arlington Catholic Herald.
This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.
Father William P. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and former dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. Father has been writing his weekly "Straight Answers" column for the Arlington Catholic Herald since 1993. The above article is one of those "Straight Answers" columns. Father Saunders is the author of Straight Answers, Answers to 100 Questions about the Catholic Faith, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald
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