Sunday Sermon for May 29, 2016, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, Year C
Readings: Gen 14:18-20; 1Cor 11:23-26; Lk 9:11b-17
In the first reading today we hear about Melchizedek who is the Priest of God Most High and the King of Salem. The town of Salem became known as Jerusalem after Abraham brought Isaac to that place in obedience to the word of God. When Abraham slaughtered the ram in place of his son, he called the place Yahweh-Jireh. The last part of this title became the first part of the word Jerusalem.
There has always been intrigue about the person of Melchizedek because he comes out of nowhere. He has not been heard of prior to genesis 14 and he is not heard of again except in Psalm 110 where David says that the Messiah would be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. This only adds more to the intrigue because the Jewish priesthood was established by God Himself and was based on descent from Aaron, the first High Priest.
However, the ancient Jewish writers and the Fathers of the Church knew exactly who Melchizedek was: he was Shem, the first born son of Noah. The reason Abraham would have given him ten percent of everything he had without hesitation is certainly out of reverence, but he was also Abraham’s great, great, great, great, great grandfather. If one looks at the years of their lives, Shem would still have been alive at the time of Abraham.
So, why call him Melchizedek instead of Shem? Melchizedek is actually a title; it means “Righteous King.” We often refer to the President as Mr. President and we can speak about the Queen of England. We know that these are titles and not the names of the people, but the title suggests a point of reverence and respect. Shem is the only righteous first born in the entire book of Genesis. With all of the emphasis put on the first born, Scripture records that there were not many of them who were too impressive. Perhaps that is an even greater reason for the reverence.
Regardless of all of this, what is also of great importance for us to understand is that the priesthood of Melchizedek predates the priesthood of Aaron by centuries. This is the priesthood that was from the beginning of time and the priesthood that was present after the flood. The priesthood of Aaron was established only after the disobedience of the Hebrew people in the desert. The Jewish sacrifices were established not only for offering sacrifice to God, but some offerings were required as punishments for violations of the law.
Even with this, it is interesting to note that the two main sacrifices of the Jewish people, sacrifices that were not due to punishments but were the intended sacrifices to be offered to God, were the lamb and bread and wine. The sacrifice Melchizedek offered was bread and wine. Jesus, being a priest, not in the order of Aaron but of Melchizedek, offered bread and wine which He turned into Himself as the sacrificial Lamb.
St. Paul, in the second reading, speaks of this offering of our Lord and adds that Jesus commanded that this be done in remembrance of Him. This hearkens back to the Exodus where Moses was commanded that the Passover was to be celebrated as an everlasting memorial. The Jewish notion of memory was not simply to not forget nor was our Lord saying “don’t forget me.” No, the Jewish understanding of memorial was to make it real. In other words, the Jews do not simply recall the events of 3500 years ago when they celebrate the Passover, they are living it, they are making it real.
The feeding of the people in the Gospel reminds us of what happened in the desert as well. We are specifically told that this is a deserted place where Jesus was with His disciples and the crowd of people. He has them seated in groups of about fifty. There is no practical reason for this if He is going to feed the entire crowd. However, it is similar to the way that Moses divided up the people in the desert and appointed leaders over groups of the people. The fact that twelve wicker baskets of fragments were collected after the people had eaten is reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Israel.
So, what we see is that the priesthood of Jesus goes back to the beginning, to the renewed and purified earth. His sacrifice renews and purifies; it obtains for us the grace to live as God intended from the beginning. So, all of history from the beginning of creation through the flood, the Exodus, the crucifixion, to today and until the end, are all brought together in this one sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Jesus. Each time this sacrifice is offered, all that it stands for is made real.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.