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Scriptural Basis Of The Sacrament Of Holy Orders

October 7, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Part 2

As we began to explore the biblical roots of the priesthood in our last installment — and thus the Sacrament of Holy Orders — we saw that the priesthood and sacrifice are inseparably linked to one another. In fact, it might accurately be said that the basic definition of a priest is “one who offers sacrifice.” In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, defines the word priest as “an authorized mediator who offers a true sacrifice in acknowledgement of God’s supreme dominion over human beings and in expiation for their sins” (p. 438).
We also observed that humanity was called to priestly worship from the beginning, the first recorded account being the sacrifices of virtuous Abel and vicious Cain (see Gen. 3:3-4). The context for priestly worship in pre-Exodus times was the family; ordinarily, it was the father or patriarch who offered sacrifice on their behalf. This was true of Noah when he exited the ark (see Gen. 8:20) and of Abraham when he was prepared to offer his only-begotten son Isaac and instead offered a ram provided by the Lord in his son’s place (see Gen. 22:13). We see yet another example in the person of Isaac’s son Jacob (see Gen. 31:54).
In this early period of salvation history, it was usually the firstborn son who received his father’s blessing to propagate this role; yet, there were exceptions. In a well-known example, Isaac unknowingly bestowed his fatherly blessing on Jacob instead of his firstborn son Esau (see Gen. 27:18-29).
Let us now jump forward approximately 400 years to the post-Exodus period which saw the establishment by God of a new form of priesthood that was destined to continue for about 1,400 years until the dawn of Christianity.
As noted by Fr. John Paul Echert in his series on the sacraments, by the time the Israelites’ exodus from enslavement under the Egyptians took place, “the knowledge of God and the practice of true religion among the descendants of the patriarchs was all but lost. Little is recorded in the Old Testament between the last patriarch and the rise of Moses” (The Catholic Servant, volume XXII, n. 3, March 2016). Fr. Echert goes on to surmise that this deplorable situation was due in large part to apostasy and immorality.
It was shortly after the miraculous passage of the Chosen People through the Red Sea that Moses was directed by the Lord to construct a sanctuary so as to unite the twelve tribes of Israel into a single nation with an abiding presence of the divine dwelling in their midst: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me an offering’. . . . And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:1, 8).
After instructing Moses on construction of the sanctuary, the Lord established a new form of priesthood: “In the tent of meeting, outside the veil which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a statute for ever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel. Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests” (Exodus 27:21-28:1).
After setting forth a detailed set of directives that were to be followed with regard to consecrating Aaron and his descendants as priests, the Lord declared, “The priesthood shall be theirs by a perpetual statute. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons” (Exodus 29:10).
However, we all know too well what happened not long after. When Moses ascended the heights of Mt. Sinai and received the two tablets of stone with the Law “written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18), Aaron failed to prevent the Israelites from falling into idolatry; in fact, he helped in forging a golden calf to worship in place of the one true God (see Exodus 32:1-6). When Moses returned and asked the people, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” (Exodus 32:26), it was the tribe of Levi who responded.
They alone remained faithful and it was on that day that Moses spoke of the Levites as ordaining themselves to the service of the Lord (cf. Exodus 32:29). It was thus that “within the people of Israel, God chose one of the twelve tribes, that of Levi, and set it apart for liturgical service” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1539).
In his work entitled The Catholic Priesthood: Biblical Foundations (CP-BF), Fr. Thomas J. Lane points out two other Old Testament accounts which indicate that the Levites were specially set apart for service of the Lord. The Book of Deuteronomy (vv. 10:8-9) “enumerates three duties of the Levites: to carry the Ark of the Covenant, to serve the Lord, and to bless in his name. A third account of the Levites being set apart for God’s service is Moses’ blessing them in Deuteronomy 33:8-11, which speaks of all the Levites in priestly terms” (CP-BF, p. 9).
Another book of the Pentateuch recounts the origin of an additional office, that of elders, in the Israelites’ religious structure: “Moses . . . gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and placed them round about the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Num. 11:24-25).
For this reason, the Church’s liturgy “sees in the priesthood of Aaron and the service of the Levites, as in the institution of the seventy elders, a prefiguring of the ordained ministry of the New Covenant” (CCC, n. 1541).
As the Catechism points out, the Church (in her Latin Rite) recognizes this prefigurement in the Prayers of Consecration for the three degrees of Ordination that are conferred in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
For the office of bishop: “From the beginning, you chose the descendants of Abraham to be your holy nation. You established rulers and priests, and did not leave your sanctuary without ministers to serve you” (CCC, n. 1541).
For the Ordination of priests, the Church prays: “You extended the spirit of Moses to seventy wise men. . . . You shared among the sons of Aaron the fullness of their father’s power” (CCC, n. 1542). Likewise, for the Ordination of deacons the Church confesses: “As ministers of your tabernacle you chose the sons of Levi and gave them your blessing as their everlasting inheritance” (CCC, n. 1543).
As Fr. James Socias notes, however, in his book entitled Introduction to Catholicism for Adults, “There seems to be a disconnect between the priesthood of the Old Covenant and the priesthood of Jesus Christ in the New Covenant. Since the Levites comprised the order of priests and Christ was born out of the tribe of Judah, how can he be a priest?” (p. 515).
To answer this apparent anomaly, we go back to the time of the great patriarch Abraham. In the Book of Genesis we are introduced ever so briefly to the figure of Melchizedek, whose name appears prominently in Eucharistic Prayer I of the Roman Canon of the Mass: “Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.”
Abraham had just returned from defeating in battle King Chedorlaomer and the three kings allied with him. It is here we meet the enigmatic figure: “Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (Gen. 14:18-20).
He immediately disappears from the Genesis story and is mentioned only once more in the Old Testament, but in a very important Messianic psalm: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’” (Psalm 110:4).

Bread And Wine

Before proceeding, it is instructive to look at his rather unusual name. It is composed of two Hebrew words: melek (which means “king”), and sadeq (which means “righteousness”).
Thus, Melchizedek is the “king of righteousness.” Furthermore, he is identified as the “king of Salem.” Since shalom means “peace,” this means he was also the “king of peace.”
We see this authenticated in the New Testament in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him; and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace” (Heb. 7:1-2).
Also important to note in the Genesis account is the offering made by the king-priest Mel-
chizedek, bread and wine, which the Church sees as “a prefiguring of her own offering” (CCC, n. 1333).
We will continue next week by probing more deeply into why Christian tradition considers the priesthood of Melchizedek to be a prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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