Because of a quirk in our schedule here in Rome, we happened to be in the Vatican City State on June 20, where they still celebrate the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on that Thursday, and then in the private rooms of Saint Ignatius Loyola for Mass on the weekend, where the feast is transferred for the rest of Italy. Thus, we heard the same readings in both places, and so this week I have had numerous opportunities to ponder the curious figure of Melchizedek, who featured prominently in the first reading and psalm in this year’s liturgical cycle.
The Old Testament reading for the feast was drawn from Genesis 14, where Melchizedek blesses the man who will become Abraham, the father of nations, with bread and wine. As the ruler of Salem, traditionally understood to be Jerusalem, this “king of righteousness” as the Hebrew literally implies, pronounces a blessing on the victorious wanderer, to be “favored by the Most High, the creator of the Heavens and earth.”
In psalm 110, the figure reappears, where the Lord makes clear: “Yours is a princely power in the day of your birth, in holy splendor; before the daystar, like the dew, I have begotten you. You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
This figure has long been recognized as a literary “type” of Christ, where persons, events, and institutions are seen to represent later realities. A classic example is the ram which Abraham slaughters on the altar in place of Isaac. Caught in the brambles and thorns that bring our minds eventually to the cross, the innocent blood is offered in the stead of Isaac (who is in other ways, a type himself).
The fact that the New Testament was written with the Hebrew Scriptures already in mind, then make the fulfilled prophecies less “magical coincidences” that happened to come true than intentional echoes of our elder siblings in faith who experienced God’s salvific presence and first wrote about it from the perspective of being in some way God’s chosen people and elect, the Jewish nation.
Melchizedek highlights not only what will come to be the sacramental ordained priesthood, but also the “bridge-building” that the priestly vocation represents for all baptized Christians. The ubiquitous allusions to the Pontifex Maximus here in the Eternal City highlight this role of literal “crossing over” between the human and the divine, to which we all, and not simply popes, are called.
In the Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano in the forum, a striking fresco dating to somewhere between the eighth and 13th century depicts Christ in robes reminiscent of both sacerdotal vestments and Byzantine royalty, with a pointed crown that calls to mind a miter. This priestly figure is stretched out on the cross, with the nail-marks in his hands and feet clearly visible. The elaborate clothes seem odd in the setting of the Passion until one pauses to remember that Catholics recognize that him who is lifted up in fact has drawn all people to himself (cf. Jn 12:32). We affirm in fact that the liturgical anamnesis (recollection or un-forgetting) of the Eucharist makes priestly, prophetic and kingly demands upon all of us who participate in it.
If we can find Christ in a ram, or the filial presence of Isaac, or the Old Testament Joseph who is sold for silver by his brothers, stripped of his garments, cast into a pit and delivered out of it — then so, too, can we find him mysteriously present in the peculiar High Priest of Salem, who blesses our Father in Faith and begs God to glorify his holy people.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, PhD., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.