In the Line of Melchizedek
In these first weeks after Epiphany, on weekdays we’ve had readings from the Letter to the Hebrews. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it is basically a transcript of an early Christian homily given by St. Paul or someone of similar rhetorical skill to answer the question of how Jesus can be a high priest, even though He was reckoned a Son of David, of the tribe of Judah, rather than being a son of Aaron of the Levites, the tribe associated with the Jewish priesthood.
Hebrews is probably the most explicit and systematic treatment of the priesthood of Christ and of certain liturgical elements of Christian worship, although the Gospel, other New Testament epistles, and the Book of Revelation address these topics as well, to a lesser extent. Another concern of the author of Hebrews is to show that Christian worship is in no way inferior but in every way superior to the Jewish worship that preceded it, which was merely “a shadow of the things to come” (Col. 2:17). This was at a time when the ceremonies carried out in the grand Jerusalem Temple—with its animal sacrifices, priestly vestments, and strict precepts—looked much more impressive (from an earthly standpoint) than those early celebrations of the Eucharist, often carried out in one of their homes.
A central figure to the argument in Hebrews is the mysterious Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He shows up for three verses in the Book of Genesis to bring out bread and wine and to bless Abraham after his victory over five kings of Canaan to rescue his nephew Lot and their possessions. Hebrews takes for granted that his blessing Abraham and receiving tithes (a tenth of the spoils of victory) means that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham, and by extension greater than Levi and Aaron, descendants of Abraham. Melchizedek and his priesthood is mentioned again in Psalm 110, which was probably used for the coronation of the sons of David and was understood to speak of the Messiah as well.
As kings of Jerusalem, the sons of David were perhaps seen as successors to Melchizedek, king of Salem (which was likely a precursor to the same city of a lengthened name) and so also sharers in Melchizedek’s priesthood. With no beginning of days or end of life recounted in Scripture, Melchizedek images the eternity of Christ, the Son of God, having “a life that cannot be destroyed” (Heb. 7:16). With his offering of bread and wine and king of Salem being translated as “king of peace,” the parallels continue to grow. May Christ, our eternal High Priest, faithful and compassionate, bring us one day with His Saints to share in His heavenly glory.