Q: I recently attended the ordination of a Catholic priest. One of the prayers spoke of him as being ordained “according to the order of Melchizedek.” Who was this person and why is he mentioned in the ordination ceremony?
A: Melchizedek was the king of Salem, and after Abram’s victory over four pagan kings allied against him (Genesis 14:1-16), Melchizedek offered a sacrifice of bread and wine and blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand” (14:17-20).
The only other Old Testament reference to Melchizedek occurs in Psalm 110: “The LORD has sworn and will not waver: ‘Like Melchizedek you are a priest forever.’” (v. 4).
Israelite and later Jewish priests were descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses. The reference here and in the ordination prayer to “the order of Melchizedek” refers to a priesthood that is not inherited from one’s father.
In chapters five through seven of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, the unknown author makes eight references to Melchizedek as a priest and as a model for Christian priests (5:6, 5:10, 6:20, 7:1, 7:10, 7:11, 7:15 and 7:17). The Letter to the Hebrews may have been written for Jewish priests who had become followers of Jesus and who wanted to better understand the difference between Jewish priests and Christian priests.
In their introduction to the Letter to the Hebrews, the editors of the New American Bible write: “The author presents to the readers for their reflection the everlasting priesthood of Christ (7, 1-28), a priesthood that fulfills the promise of the Old Testament (8, 1-13). It also provides the meaning God ultimately intended in the sacrifices of the Old Testament (9, 1-28): these pointed to the unique sacrifice of Christ, which alone obtains forgiveness of sins (10, 1-18). The trial of faith experienced by the readers should resolve itself through their consideration of Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and his perpetual intercession there on their behalf (7, 25; 8, 1-13). They should also be strengthened by the assurance of his foreordained parousia, and by the fruits of faith that they have already enjoyed (10, 19-39).”