Jesus taught His disciples on the Emmaus Road that the Old Testament was actually about Him. As Augustine said, the New Covenant is hidden in the Old Covenant and the Old Covenant is only fully revealed in the New. That’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church is getting at when it tells us:
1333 At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood. Faithful to the Lord’s command the Church continues to do, in his memory and until his glorious return, what he did on the eve of his Passion: “He took bread. . . .” “He took the cup filled with wine. . . .” The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ; they continue also to signify the goodness of creation. Thus in the Offertory we give thanks to the Creator for bread and wine, fruit of the “work of human hands,” but above all as “fruit of the earth” and “of the vine” – gifts of the Creator. The Church sees in the gesture of the king-priest Melchizedek, who “brought out bread and wine,” a prefiguring of her own offering.
The Eucharist, like all the sacraments, looks backward as well as forward. Of course, it looks back to the Last Supper. But the Last Supper itself looks back as well to the celebration of the Passover. And the Passover looks back even further. For what is not so clearly recognized is that the offering of bread and wine is itself a gesture that has far more ancient roots. In fact, it takes us back to one of the primordial figures in the story of God’s revelation to us: Melchizedek.
Melchizedek is a fascinating figure, not least because we know almost nothing about him. He shows up in the biblical narrative for all of three verses and then disappears completely. Yet those three verses will maintain a grip on the minds of both Jews and Christians for 3000 years.
Here’s the story: Abraham (c. 2000 BC) is living in the Promised Land when his nephew Lot gets shanghaied by some tribal chieftain down in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea. Abraham takes some of his best men, beats up the chieftain and his guys, and rescues Lot and his family. On the way back from the battle, this happens:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:18-20)
That’s it. That’s all. Seems like no big whoop. But this scene has had a huge impact on the thinking of both Old and New Testament thinkers. How?
First, because of Abraham’s relationship with Melchizedek. Abraham doesn’t worship and celebrate sacrifices with just anybody. He is a devotee of something almost unheard of in antiquity: a monotheistic cult of worship centered on the One True God. He doesn’t honor Egyptian or Canaanite deities. He honors “God Most High”. That Melchizedek does too is, therefore, quite astonishing. He sticks out from the biblical narrative and is a deeply mysterious figure. And the fact that Abraham not only worships with him by sharing in the sacrificial meal, but even regards him as a superior to himself (by paying tithes to him) renders him even more impressive. His very existence means that there is some sort of priesthood that is older than and superior to the Levitical priesthood that will come from Abraham’s loins through his descendants.
Another reason Melchizedek is so memorable is because of his name, or rather his lack of one. “Melchizedek” is a title, not a name. It means “King of Righteousness”. Where is he king? “Salem” or, as we would say today, “Jerusalem”. This connects a number of dots, because Jerusalem will of course be hugely important, not only to Abraham later on, but to the people of Israel. It will be on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah that Abraham will offer Isaac in sacrifice (Gen 22). That’s not a coincidence. In antiquity, you didn’t offer sacrifice and celebrate cultic ceremonies just anywhere. You did it at sacred places. Abraham is commanded to go to Moriah to offer the sacrifice of Isaac. Moriah is basically the same place that Melchizedek acts as priest-king. So it’s not a shock that a fellow worshipper of God Most High would go to his cultic center for this particular act of worship to God Most High.
All this seems to have stuck in the back of the minds of the people of Israel. At the Exodus, centuries later, they sing of the happy time to come when, after their wanderings, they will find a permanent home and a permanent place of worship. That’s what is referred to in the great song of deliverance Israel sings after the passage through the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in Exodus 15:17: “Thou wilt bring them in, and plant them on thy own mountain, the place, O LORD, which thou hast made for thy abode, the sanctuary, O LORD, which thy hands have established.” Israel, from the moment it leaves Egypt, is looking for a home and a sanctuary.
Which brings us to King David, three centuries or so after the Exodus and some thousand years after Abraham and Melchizedek. Because when he establishes his capital at (where else?) Jerusalem, he inaugurates his reign by doing something very significant when looked at in light of this historical backdrop. He leads the Ark of the Covenant in to the city wearing a linen ephod and dancing before it. That’s a priestly act in ancient Jewish culture. To get the hang of it, imagine the President of the United States paying a visit to St. Peter’s, donning a stole and then going up to kiss the altar. And David doesn’t stop there. He offers bread and (according to some translators) wine to the people. Remind you of anybody? David inaugurates his reign by identifying himself with Melchizedek and where, centuries earlier this priest-king had reigned. Not only that, he proposes to build God’s temple or sanctuary there.
Nathan the prophet tells David that he will not build God’s house but rather than God will build his “house” (meaning, “dynasty”), that one of his sons will always be on throne of Israel and that his son, Solomon, will build his temple. Solomon does so—on Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1). And as David gives the kingdom over into Solomon’s hands, he composes a coronation ode with a striking promise:
The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4)
The Davidic king (aka the “son of David”) is then a priest-king like Melchizedek, whose defining gesture is the offering of bread and wine. Not surprisingly then, when the ultimate Son of David comes to establish his Kingdom as both Priest and Victim, he is looked at by the author of Hebrews precisely in terms of his relationship to Melchizedek (Hebrews 7). And when that Priest King consecrates priests himself, he will command them to offer exactly those gifts in the new and everlasting covenant. They are gifts of peace because it is the blood of Christ which bring about the peace which makes us all members of one body. As Paul says:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. (Ephesians 2:13-16)
In the Eucharist, the author and heir of the priesthood of Melchizedek continues to offer the gifts of bread and wine so that the heirs of Abraham, our father in faith, can continue to worship God Most High, creator of heaven and earth, in peace—peace with God and peace with one another.