The Priest-King Melchizedek appears in only two verses in the Old Testament but in Salvation History he is a link in a chain from Noah to Abraham to Christ the King.
“The Lord has sworn and he will not repent; you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4)
The readers of These Stone Walls have read and heard a lot about priesthood in the trenches in recent weeks. Father Stuart MacDonald’s post, “Our Battle-Weary Priesthood” set the stage for my own a week later entitled: “The Heart of a Priest in Hindsight.” However, readers have told me that nothing could have prepared them for the shock and awe of our first-ever video post, “A Documentary Interview with Father Gordon MacRae.”
Many readers have said that they did not know whether to cheer or cry by its end. I hope you do neither. The truth is its own reward and solace, and I am grateful for an opportunity to stand by it. As I told Louisville, Kentucky attorney Franklyn Friday who was instrumental in finding and publishing this long-lost video, “For a priest in my situation, being heard now feels almost as important as being free! Almost!”
For many readers who have read and listened, one truth is clear. The assault on the priesthood both from within and from without in recent decades is a story of spiritual warfare. Anyone who enters this battle unaware of its real source and meaning is doomed. We who have faced spiritual warfare no longer doubt this.
On the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, Catholics are introduced in the First Reading at Mass to Melchizedek, a priest of God Most High and the King of Salem which, in time, will become “Jerusalem.” He is the first person in the Bible to be referred to as a priest.
This story reaches back in time to the earliest point in Salvation History bearing historical and spiritual resonance with Christ. But first, I must take a short side road into another mystery with a tiny thread of connection in this Great Tapestry of God.
I have long pondered the hidden meaning of one of the most difficult passages to interpret in all of Sacred Scripture. From the Church Fathers of the first few centuries to the present day, scholars have struggled with its meaning. The passage is in the First Letter of Peter.
“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water.” (1 Peter 3 18-20)
These words, put forth by the first Vicar of Christ in the mid-First Century Anno Domini, are cryptic and mysterious. For obvious reasons, I was drawn to the notion that the Risen Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey.” The connection with “the days of Noah” broadens the possible meanings of this Biblical mystery.
IN THE TIME OF NOAH
It is difficult to ponder back 2,000 years into the mindset of Peter and the post-Resurrection early Church. And when we consider Melchizedek’s role in all this, we have to ponder backwards yet another 2,000 years to the time of Abraham. But this reach back into time becomes even more complex. There is a connection to Noah as well, and it reaches back into time immemorial.
I have written in several posts that spiritually, we live in a very important time. We exist today in the 21st Century after Christ while the summons of Abraham – humanity’s first Covenant with God, the first since the Great Flood of Noah’s time – took place in the 21st Century before Christ. It is no cosmic mystery that believers encounter spiritual battle in our time.
For some, St Peter’s reference to Christ attending to “the spirits in prison” refers to what the Apostles Creed declares as “he descended into hell.” In the early Third Century, St Cyril of Alexandria interpreted the above verses from the First Letter of Peter to mean that on Holy Saturday, Christ descended to the dead to make a final offer of salvation to the deceased sinners of Noah’s day.
St Augustine, in the Fifth Century, proposed a more complex interpretation Citing the “preexistent divinity” of Christ, a theological concept I described in “Waking Up in the Garden of Gethsemane,” Christ urged the ancient world, through the person of Noah, to repent before being swept away in the floodwaters of God’s judgment.
Modern scholarship proposes another possibility. Some suggest that “the spirits in prison” were never human at all, but rather rebel angels, “the Watchers” who corrupted the world of men before the Flood. This accords with the frequent use of “spirits” for angels in the New Testament (see Matthew 12:45, Luke 10:20, and Hebrews 1:14).
Whether evil or merely unrepentant, this descent to spirits in the spiritual underworld is consistent with millennia of Jewish tradition and, for Christians, a declaration that Christ has reversed the fall of man.
His post-Resurrection descent “to the spirits in prison” may well be a proclamation of victory to the infernal spirits whose power had been crushed by his redeeming death. For those who have faced spiritual battle, this verse from Saint Peter reveals Christ as a cosmic refuge from evil.
IN THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK
The above is background for a fascinating theological connection Saint Peter draws between Christ’s post-Resurrection visit to the nether world and the story of Noah and the Great Flood. That in turn connects to the Priest-King Melchizedek, his blessing upon Abraham, and the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.
In consulting extensive scholarly research on the Melchizedek story, I discovered that much of it was compiled in the Jerome Biblical Commentary by my late uncle, Father George W. MacRae, S.J., Rector of the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem and later Dean of Harvard Divinity School.
Here’s the short version of the back story to the First Reading from Genesis on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. In the 21st Century before the Birth of the Messiah, in the Eighth Century before Moses encountered Yahweh in the Burning Bush, Abram encountered God as “El Shaddai,” a name which in Hebrew means “God on the Mountain” or “God Most High.”
At Shechem in the Book of Genesis (17:5) El Shaddai established a covenant with Abram promising him descendants and the land of Canaan. At this time God changed Abram’s name to Abraham. Later, a raiding party sent by the Mesopotamian overlords of Canaan was pursued by Abraham after they ravaged his encampment and took prisoners, including his nephew, Lot. Abraham prevailed in battle, rescued the prisoners, including Lot, and restored the bounty of what would one day become Israel.
On his his return route, Abraham was met at Salem (later called Jeru-Salem) by its king, Melchizedek. The First Reading at Mass for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi tells this story. With echoes of the Eucharistic Feast, and in a dramatic variation from the Hebrew tradition of animal sacrifice…
“Melchizedek, King of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High [God on the Mountain], he blessed Abram 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 14:18-20)
This story preserved for Judaism the living memory of what would become its spiritual capital, Jeru-Salem. Besides being the King of Salem, Melchizedek is the first person in Sacred Scripture to be called a priest His dominant position in the brief narrative in Genesis (14:18-20) reveals him as King of Kings, the first of the Canaanite kings. His name in Hebrew is “Malchi-Zedek” meaning “My King Is Righteous.” Hebrew tradition ascribes to him another title: Prince of Peace.
Being a patriarch, Melchizedek possessed both ruling authority as a king and religious authority as a priest. His identity as both is widely seen as a foreshadowing of the Kingship and Priestly ministry of Christ. The link between Melchizedek and the patriarchal priesthood is clear in both Jewish and Christian traditions, and is a centerpiece of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews.
But before I describe that, it is a fascinating revelation that ancient scholarship from both Jewish and Christian sources identifies Melchizedek as the Patriarch Shem, the first-born son of Noah and a righteous survivor of the Great Flood and the Ark. According to the genealogy of Noah in Genesis, Shem lived hundreds of years, well into the time of Abraham.
The genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Saint Luke places his lineage from Shem through the line of David to the adoption of the Christ Child by Joseph. The Hebrew tradition that Melchizedek is actually Shem, son of Noah, is in the oldest translations of Genesis. It appears also in the earliest Patristic writings, in the Letters of St Jerome (Letter 73) and in the Commentary on Hebrews by St Thomas Aquinas.
In the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, Christ is linked to Melchizedek through His Royal Priesthood. For much of the Old Testament, the offices of king and priest stemmed from two different traditions. Aaron (brother of Moses) and his descendants were priests from the tribe of Levi David and his descendants from the tribe of Judah comprised the line of kings. In only two Biblical figures are these roles combined: Melchizedek and Jesus.
The ministry of Melchizedek in Salem (the early Jerusalem) foreshadows the ministry of Christ in the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22) . The notion of divine inheritance is also present. God has raised his first born Son, exalting him even over the angels (Hebrews 1-2) as well as over the Mosaic Covenant (Hebrews 5-10). Melchizedek, as Shem, is the first born son who inherits the Covenant with Noah.
Lastly, and most importantly for this post, Jesus chooses the elements of his sacrifice in the Eucharistic Feast as bread and wine. In the Heavenly Sanctuary, Jesus continues to offer the Father the sacrifice of His Body and Blood with the sacramental appearance of bread and wine.
The origin of bread and wine as elements of transubstantiation is found in these verses in Genesis (14:18-20) and cited in the Roman Canon of the Mass, which at one time was the only Canon of the Mass, as “the offering of your high priest, Melchizedek.” The solemnity of Corpus Christi reaches across the millennia to the very foundations of the covenant between humanity and God. It extends across the eons between us and Father Abraham, and at its very center in time stands Christ the King and High Priest.
“Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your dearly Beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and the sins of the whole world.” (From the Divine Mercy Chaplet of Saint Maria Faustina)
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Note from Father Gordon MacRae: It is my hope that this post will enhance your experience of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Please share this post so that it may land before someone else who needs it. You may also like these related posts from These Stone Walls:
- Ever Ancient, Ever New: Jesus’ Priesthood in Today’s Chaos by Fr. Stuart MacDonald, J.C.L.
- The Chief Priests Answered, ‘We Have No King but Caesar’
- Living in the Present in the Presence of Christ the King
- Turmoil in Rome and the Transfiguration of Christ