One of the reasons I started this blog is that there is a general misunderstanding of what the Catholic priesthood represents. As a result, I want to use this site as a way to clear up some of these misunderstandings. Now, of course, I can't do this all in one post. The role of the priesthood in modern Catholic life is the same role as it was after Jesus commissioned the twelve in the upper room to "Do this in memory of me". It may look different, but the common thread between the priesthood Jesus left and the priesthood we have now is that the priest brings Jesus Christ to people in a very profound way, in the Eucharist at Holy Mass. I am always reminded this when I go to an ordination of a man who is ordained a priest.
I was at such an ordination on Saturday, where my good friend Tony Killian became Father Tony Killian, ordained to be an alter Christus, or, another Christ. Now, this blog will go on forever if I decide to talk about every aspect of ordination and the priestly character, so I want to focus on one aspect: The Old Testament priesthood as it relates to the New Testament priesthood of Jesus Christ as it is carried on by the Roman Catholic priesthood today. The priesthood will be the focus on many future posts on this site though.
Through the Mosaic Covenant, Aaron, Moses' brother, became high priest and the first of the Levitical priesthood, which will carry on even to modern times. Their main role was to offer sacrifice in the Temple, and before the Temple was built, in a giant tent. There would be stone slabs where the priest would offer certain sacrifices. Some would be for him. Some would be for people. People would come and give the priest their sacrifice, say turtle doves, or a goat. The Levitical priest would sacrifice it. This is a rough description of the Levitical priesthood. Some Jewish feast days are much different and prescribe different types of sacrifices. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, has a very interesting prescription for sacrifice, part of which includes putting all the sins of the people on a goat and sending it off into the desert to atone for the sins of the people. This is actually a prefigurement of Christ when He goes off into the wilderness to atone for the sins of the people.
Over the centuries, the Levitical Priesthood started to slip and not hold up to the standards imposed on them by Mosaic Law. What soon developed was a split, with the Pharisees in charge of the Temple, focusing very much on Levitical Law and a strict interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant, so much that mercy was not a factor in decisions that they made. This is why the Pharisees are always upset when Jesus cures on the Sabbath.
This gives you an overview of what the Levitical Priesthood was about in a nutshell. However, Jesus was not of the Levitical Priesthood. He fulfilled the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Jerusalem) around the time of Abraham. Abram was blessed by Melchizedek:
"Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he 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'" (Gen 14:18-20).
Some important things to consider out of this passage is that first, Melchizedek is priest and king of Jerusalem. The Levitical priesthood started by Aaron centuries after Melchizedek were just priests; they were ordinarily not considered king. So, just as Melchizedek is high priesthood and king, so is Christ high priest and high king. It is also not a coincidence that Christ offered his sacrifice of bread and wine (which would be fulfilled in His death) in the same city Melchizedek did, in Jerusalem. And finally, the very idea that Christ offers bread and wine, the same substances as Melchizedek, shows that Melchizedek is an Old Testament prefigurement of Christ and His sacrifice. Levitical priests offered bulls, rams, and birds. Melchizedek and Christ offered bread and wine. The closest thing the Levitical priests offered for certain things were cereal offerings. But Melchizedek is the one that Christ is following as a way to fulfill the Old Testament. These important similarities are not coincidences; Melchizedek is really the Old Testament figure of Christ in his position as king, and more importantly, as his role as high priest of Jerusalem, offering bread and wine, the same things Christ would offer the night before His sorrowful death.
Now, the things I am pointing out are not my original thoughts. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, many attributing to St. Paul, says the following, referring to Christ:
"Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek" (Hebrews 5:8-10).
Christ is the high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. The ordination on Saturday chose chose Psalm 110 for the responsory. The response read: "Priest forever like Melchizedek of old, the Lord Christ offered bread and wine." This response from the liturgy is yet again making the connection between Melchizedek and Christ. In the Liturgy of the Hours, which all priests are canonically obligated to pray and laity are encouraged to pray, the first Psalm every Sunday evening prayer II is Psalm 110, part of which reads: "The Lord has sworn an oath He will not change: You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchizedek of old." These are all echoes of Psalm 110 which solidifies the importance of Melchizedek and an Old Testament prefiguring of Christ.
To conclude this post, we must realize then that when a man is ordained a priest of Jesus Christ, he is being ordained a priest not according to the Levitical Priesthood, but rather to the order of Melchizedek. So a man is ordained a priest of Jesus Christ not according to Aaron, but according to Melchizedek. The priest offers bread and wine as a way to be "in persona Christi," in the person of Christ, because that is what He offered for the acceptable sacrifice. This sacrifice was made complete by the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For meditation purposes, I would suggest you read Hebrews 5:1-10, and Psalm 110, and meditate on Christ the high priest, He who takes away the sin of the world by the acceptable sacrifice He makes for the remission of our sin. May God bless you all in all that you do, and may you stay close to the heart of Christ through the intercession of His mother, Mary. O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us.