Melchizedek was the king of Salem (Jerusalem). When Abraham and his "army" return victorious from doing battle, Melchizedek fears that the marauders will also plunder his city as they pass by. Rather than wait to see what Abraham will do, Melchizedek goes out to meet them and offers bread and wine for their refreshment. In return for this gesture of peace, Abraham shares a tenth of all that he has seized from his enemies with this priest/king. This whole incident is covered in three short verses of chapter fourteen of the Book of Genesis. Yet this man is still remembered for this gesture of peace (or self-preservation, depending upon your interpretation of his actions). He is mentioned in Psalm 110 and quite extensively in the Letter to the Hebrews.
This simple action of peace is still remembered whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. Bread and wine have taken on the symbolic nature of peace and redemption. Melchizedek is remembered for "redeeming" his city, saving his city from the band of marauders. That bread and wine become the food that redeems us, saves us, from sin. Jesus, who offers his body and blood under the appearances of bread and wine, is forever linked to this otherwise insignificant character from Jewish history. According to Psalm 110, all priests are in the "order of Melchizedek," whether or not they are of the tribe of Levi.
It is from Melchizedek that we also gain insight into the priesthood of Jesus. Melchizedek shows us five qualities that are embodied in Jesus the high priest. First, it is a priesthood of righteousness or of right relationship. Melchizedek blesses Abraham upon meeting him. Blessings in Jewish culture are bestowed by the greater to the lesser person. By blessing Abraham, Melchizedek signifies the correct or relationship. Second, it is a priesthood of peace as Melchizedek offered Abraham and his army bread and wine in order to preserve peace. Third, it is a royal priesthood. Genesis recounts that Melchizedek was the king as well as a priest. Fourth, this priesthood is personal rather than inherited, for the Letter to the Hebrews states that Melchizedek is without father or mother; in other words, he has no genealogy and is not a priest through birth. Finally, it is eternal, a fact that can be gleaned from the fact that there is no record of Melchizedek’s birth or his death. All of these characteristics, set out in the person of Melchizedek, define the priesthood of Jesus.
This one small gesture of peace on the part of Melchizedek helps us to understand both the Eucharist and the priesthood, a priesthood and a sacrificial meal in which we all share.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator