Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Of Aaron, Melchizedek, David, Christ and the Priesthood

Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek 
by Dieric Bouts the Elder, 1464–67
You might remember a few posts back that I had a correspondent who  wrote

Isn't an offering of bread and wine an appropriate at this point in the mass, preceding as it does the Eucharistic sacrifice, seeing as Jesus is high priest according to the order of Melchizedek? Melchizedek, after all, did offer bread and wine. By this I mean, as Melchizedek was the Old Testament figure of Christ as High Priest, and priests offer sacrifices.

I explained why a secondary sacrifice—one of bread and wine—is theologically repugnant when our faith is centered in the redemptive Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, the only sacrifice by which humankind is redeemed.  But I think we need to explore this idea of the priesthood of Melchizedek as our correspondent seems to think that Jesus shares in the priesthood of Melchizedek and does not understand how that demeans the unique role of Christ as sole redeemer of humankind and demeans his priesthood by declaring it to be a sharing in the priesthood of the ancient King of Salem who blessed Abraham rather than seeing that Christ exercises a priesthood in his own right.
Among the societies of the ancient near East, it was not rare for the King to be the chief cultic figure as well as the civil ruler.  It was not this way with the Jews, but it was common among many of the other societies.  And indeed the idea of the Kingship being joined to the priesthood came into Christian mythology as well.  For example, when we look at the preface for the Solemnity of Christ the King we see the ideas of priesthood and kingship interwoven into a single figure.
I am old enough to remember watching the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.  I don’t remember much of the coronation service—my Dad and I watched it late into the night after the tapes had been flown across the Atlantic for broadcast here.  But my Dad, for some reason, drew my attention to the fact that the Queen laid aside her royal robes before the coronation and put on priestly vestments.  I have since researched this a bit and found that the British monarch puts aside the “robe of state”—the purple mantle with a long train—and puts on a type of alb called the colobium sidonis.  Over this is the supertunica—a type of dalmatic made of gold silk. Over this goes a cope of cloth of gold called the pallium regale.  Finally the sovereign is invested with the armilla, a stole of the same material of cloth of gold and worn over both shoulders in the fashion of a priestly stole.  The tradition of dressing the monarch in quasi-liturgical vestments finds its roots in the Byzantine ritual of the sixth century from where it spread to the Holy Roman Empire in the West and then to the various European monarchies.  Curiously, when the Reformers swept away Eucharistic vestments in England, they left the coronation vestments intact for all those Protestant centuries.
England was not the only monarchy to associate the Crown with priestly dignity.  The Kings of France at their coronation were given to drink from the chalice of the Precious Blood at the coronation Mass.  This was again because a certain priestly character was attributed to the King.  The Tsars of Russia also, at their coronations, received the Eucharist not in the manner of the laity, but as a priest.  Along with the concelebrating bishops, the newly crowned Tsar approached the Holy Table, reverenced the Eucharist sitting thereupon with a deep bow, took the piece of Eucharistic bread in his hands and self-communicated, before kissing the chalice and then drinking the precious blood.  After the Tsar had so received in the priestly fashion, the Metropolitan of Moscow added the remaining fragments of consecrated bread to the chalice from which the laity then received the intincted Eucharist on a gold spoon.
Back to ancient Israel.  King David was anxious to appropriate a cultic role to himself as other Kings in the ancient Near East did.  David had a passion for worship.  He composed many of the psalms that were sung in the temple worship.  He had a major celebration in bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, leading the procession himself in ecstatic dance.  He wanted to build a temple to hold the Ark, but God revealed to him through the prophet Nathan that it would be the task of his successor to build the temple. 
David wanted to appropriate a certain priesthood to the monarchy but how could he when was descended from Judah and God had revealed that the priests were to be taken solely from the descendants of Levi through Aaron.  David composes psalm 110 to justify his position.

Psalm 110 provides a solution.

The Lord says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”

The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
“Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
Your troops will be willing
on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy splendor,
your young men will come to you
like dew from the morning’s womb.

The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”

The Lord is at your right hand;
he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.
He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead
and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.
He will drink from a brook along the way,
and so he will lift his head high.

David here is King by God’s anointing—his victories had been won by God so that he, David might rule.  But it is not only the military kingship that is given to David—but also the priesthood.  No, he is not a descendent of Levi and Aaron, but “the Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”  Like Melchizedek David is not of the priestly line, but like Melchizedek he has been found worthy of the priesthood.
David of course, at least as far as we know, did not stand at the altar sacrificing bulls and goats.  He shows no desire to infringe on the rights and duties of the cultic priests, but he does appropriate to himself and his royal office a priestly character.
As the disciples of Jesus began, perhaps on the road to Emmaus, to interpret the scriptures from a new perspective that explained the death and Resurrection of Jesus, they came to see his death as the definitive sacrifice of Atonement by which God and humankind were fully reconciled.  The Cross was able to do what no amount of the blood of bulls and goats, or the bushels of bread and vats of wine, offered in sacrifice could do.  The Cross stands alone as the sacrifice by which all humankind is reconciled to the Father. 
But to offer himself in sacrifice, Christ had to be a priest.  And Jesus, like his ancestor David, was from the lineage of Judah.  How could this be reconciled?  Simply.  Like his Father David, Jesus was priest not by human lineage but by divine anointing.  It had been done so for Melchizedek.  It had been done so for David.  It was done so for Jesus. 
But this does not mean that Jesus, nor David for that matter, shares in Melchizedek’s priesthood.  It simply means that he has a priesthood that is exceptional, outside the normal rules, by Divine Choice. 
Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the Second Person of the Divine Trinity.  It is beneath the dignity of the Incarnation that he draw his priesthood from any human source but rather that he is priest because has been so designated by the Father.  Like Melchizedek he is a priest because God accepts his priesthood though he is not of the Aaronic line.  But it is his own priesthood, not that of Melchizedek, that he exercises in the Sacrifice of Calvary.  “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” does not mean that Christ shares in the priesthood of Melchizedek.  It means simply that like Melchizedek—and like his ancestor David—Christ is designated a priest by God outside the normal lineage. 
Next time perhaps we will speak of the “priests” of the new covenant who minister at the altars from the time of Jesus to today.  Like Christ, their priesthood is not Melchizedek’s.  Neither is it their own.  We will take a look at this in a future posting. 

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