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Scriptural Basis Of The Sacrament Of Holy Orders

October 14, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

Part 3

In our previous installment on the scriptural background for the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we examined the circumstances leading to a shift in the Old Testament from a priesthood entrusted to the heads of households and patriarchs to a ministerial priesthood divinely delegated to Aaron and his descendants within the tribe of Levi.
Likewise, we saw that this new form of priesthood extended from the time of Moses and the exodus of the Chosen People from Egypt until the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of Christianity. The Aaronic priesthood and the service of the Levites, teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), is seen by the Church as “a prefiguring of the ordained ministry of the New Covenant” (n. 1541).
As proclaimed by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, the priests of the Old Covenant were “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb. 5:1). However, states the Catechism, “this priesthood nevertheless remains powerless to bring about salvation, needing to repeat its sacrifices ceaselessly and being unable to achieve a definitive sanctification, which only the sacrifice of Christ would accomplish” (CCC, n. 1540).
In closing last week, we observed that the priesthood of Melchizedek — an enigmatic figure who suddenly and mysteriously appears and as quickly disappears in the Book of Genesis — is seen by Christian tradition “as a prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ” (CCC, n. 1544).
Biblical exegetes and scholars have long debated the figure of Melchizedek and have failed to universally agree on his identity. His brief appearance in the Old Testament, as we saw last week, occurs during the time of the great patriarch Abraham. In some ways, “he is anachronistic, that is, outside the normal course of time and sequence as far as Old Testament sacrifices are concerned” (Fr. John Paul Echert, The Catholic Servant, volume XXII, n. II, February, 2016).
At a time when sacrifice was offered by the male head of household and animal sacrifice was the norm, no genealogy is given for Melchizedek and he offers bread and wine.
Significant to note, also, is that he is the first person in Sacred Scripture to be called a priest, and he is the only figure in the Book of Genesis to be called a “priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:18).
So what are the theories regarding the identity of Melchizedek? Was he a heavenly/angelic being or a historical human person?
In his Catholic Bible Dictionary (CBD), Dr. Scott Hahn lists various identities that have been set forth. For example, some modern scholars consider him a Canaanite priest of their supreme god “El” (“God” in Hebrew). In the Dead Sea Scrolls, he is identified as an eschatological judge who will appear during the end times to destroy the Devil (cf. p. 599). Others even identify him as the pre-incarnate Christ. Notions such as these have been advanced, in part, due to a literal reading of a verse in the Letter to the Hebrews: “He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Heb. 7:3).
The most commonly held view according to ancient Jewish and Christian tradition, however, is that Melchizedek is none other than the patriarch Shem, the eldest son of Noah (Gen. 6:10). To demonstrate the feasibility of this position, Scripture scholars note that the genealogy from Shem to Abraham as recorded in the Book of Genesis — which spans nine generations — includes the age of the firstborn male in each generation when he, in turn, fathered his firstborn son (see Gen. 11:10-26).
Moreover, since the number of years that Shem lived after the birth of his firstborn is also recorded (Gen. 11:11), a careful literal reading of the text and simple arithmetic show that Shem and Abraham lived contemporaneously. Therefore, it is possible that Shem was the priest-king Melchizedek who blessed Abraham after his successful military campaign (Gen. 14:19).
To lend credibility to the possible veracity of this theory, Dr. Hahn notes that references to Melchizedek as Shem appear in such historical Jewish documents as the Aramaic Targums, the Babylonian Talmud, and various ancient rabbinic commentaries. Likewise, it was favored in the Christian tradition during patristic times by St. Jerome (c. 347-420) and St. Ephraem the Syrian (306-373) and in medieval times by St. Thomas and other noted theologians (cf. CBD, ibid.).
How might one reconcile that Melchizedek is a historical human person in light of the previously cited verse from Hebrews which indicated that he had no mother or father, nor beginning or end of life? In his compelling work entitled The Catholic Priesthood: Biblical Foundations (CP-BF), Fr. Thomas J. Lane argues it may be explained by what exegetes understand to be “an argument from silence” (p. 56). In other words, Melchizedek appears in Gen. 14:18 with no prior introduction and we do not hear of him again in the Pentateuch, which leads the author of Hebrews to state that Melchizedek had no beginning or end.
In his Summa Theologiae (STh), the Angelic Doctor elaborates further: “Melchisedech is described as without father, without mother, without genealogy, and as having neither beginning of days nor ending of life, not as though he had not these things, but because these details in his regard are not supplied by Holy Scripture. And in this it is that, as the Apostle says in the same passage, he is likened unto the Son of God, Who had no earthly father, no heavenly mother, and no genealogy” (STh III, Q. 22, art. 6, ad 3).
The Catholic Encyclopedia provides yet another argument of fittingness: “The silence of Scripture about the facts of Melchisedech’s birth and death was part of the divine plan to make him prefigure more strikingly the mysteries of Christ’s generation, the eternity of His priesthood.”
Last week it was stated that the Messiah was to be a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” as prophesied in Psalm 110:4. The Letter to the Hebrews shows this was fulfilled and, in fact, includes the phrase “order of Melchizedek” no less than five times (Heb. 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 17). Heb. 7:1-10 demonstrates that Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior to that of the Levites.
As Fr. Lane explains, “Hebrews 7:1-3 showed that lack of ancestry distinguishes Melchizedek’s priesthood from the Levites, and in 7:4-10 the author makes use of a clever argument to show the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood over the Levites” (CP:BF, p. 57).
To paraphrase Fr. Lane, the argument set forth in the Letter to the Hebrews goes as follows: Melchizedek blessed Abraham who, in turn, paid tithes to Melchizedek. The superiority of Melchizedek is demonstrated in that he gave the blessing and is likewise displayed in that he received tithes from Abraham. Since the Levites descended from Abraham, they paid tithes in his person to one who was greater, Mel-
chizedek. Thus, Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood even though it occurred much earlier, during the patriarchal period.

King And High Priest

The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible — New Testament (p. 426) offers a four-point explanation, as summarized below, of how the author of the Letter to the Hebrews shows that Melchizedek’s priesthood foreshadows that of Christ’s.
First, by reason of Royal Priesthood: Jesus is both king and high priest, just like Melchizedek. In the patriarchal period, the head of the household wore two crowns, that of ruling and that of religious authority. In the Levitical period, Aaron and the Levitical line performed priestly duties; David and the Judahite line were the kings.
Second, by reason of Priesthood in Salem: Melchizedek’s ministry in the earthly Salem prefigures the ministry of Jesus Christ in “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). It is in the celestial homeland of Heaven that our Lord Jesus Christ eternally ministers as king and high priest of the People of God (see Heb. 8:1-5).
Third, by reason of Inheritance of the Son: The patriarchal form of the priesthood, which is based on the natural order of the family and is modeled by the priesthood of Melchizedek, is an earthly model of what is now established in the divine family of God. Jesus, the firstborn Son raised up by the Father (Heb. 1:6), is the designated heir who has been given authority over the whole created order. Neither Melchizedek nor Jesus belongs to a priesthood that is confined by restrictions as laid down for Levitical priests of the Old Covenant.
Fourth, by reason of Signs of Bread and Wine: The bread and wine offered in thanksgiving by the priest-king Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18) prefigure the sacramental signs that Catholic Christians receive as food from the “altar” (Heb. 13:10) in the Eucharistic Liturgy. They really and truly become the “body” (Heb. 10:10) and “blood” (Heb. 9:12) of Christ, which He offered to His heavenly Father as a perfect sacrifice for our redemption.
As the Catechism exultantly proclaims, “Christ is the unique ‘high priest after the order of Melchizedek’ (Heb. 5:10; cf. 6:20; Gen. 14:18); ‘holy, blameless, unstained’ (Heb. 7:26), ‘by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified’ (Heb. 10:14), that is, by the unique sacrifice of the cross” (CCC, n. 1544).

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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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