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Preface V of Easter
In the Letter to the Hebrews we’re taught that Our Lord is a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek (see Hebrews 5:6,10; 6:20; 7:11,15). Unlike the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament, Our Lord was not established as a priest due to a hereditary eligibility: the Levitical priests were all from the tribe of Levi, and Our Lord was from the tribe of Judah. Melchizedek seemed to come out of nowhere, not drawing from any hereditary origin as the foundation for his priesthood. Our Lord, like Melchizedek, did not become a priest due to heredity. However, Our Lord had an even greater source of priesthood than Melchizedek or the Levitical priesthood: he became a priest “by the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16). It was that indestructible life that enabled him to establish and perform a priesthood that no one could have performed before him due to sin and death.
Christ, Priest and Victim
The Levitical priests were many because they could not continue exercising their priestly office; upon death their office ceased (see Hebrews 7:23-25). Our Lord, on the other hand, lives forever and exercises his priesthood forever: “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). The bishops and priests who serve us today in the ministerial priesthood, unlike the Levitical priests, participate in the one priesthood of Christ, rendering him present through the ages by the celebration of the sacraments in which we encounter Christ, even as he exercises his priesthood forever at the right hand of the Father.
Christ is not only priest, but victim. No one who sees how he was brutalized during the Passion doubts that he was victimized, but this victim freely offered himself as sacrificial victim for our sins, once and for all: “He has no need, like those high priests [Levitical priests], to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:27). No priest before him would have been able to establish and exercise a priesthood forever through a complete self-offering. He did so and was raised from the dead so that his priesthood could continue forever, as well of the fruits of his self-offering on the Cross.
“By the oblation of his Body, he brought the sacrifices of old to fulfillment in the reality of the Cross and, by commending himself to you for our salvation, showed himself the Priest, the Altar, and the Lamb of sacrifice.”
Our Lord not only brought all the sacrifices of the Old Testament priesthood to fulfillment through his Passion; he brings all our sacrifices to fulfillment too. Even as the bishop or priest raises Our Lord in the Eucharist to the Heavenly Father we lay alongside him our prayers and sacrifices for the good of the whole world. From bishop on down every believer participates in the priesthood of Christ, not all in the same manner, but all through the same High Priest in Heaven.
In worship the altar represents the threshold between the human and the divine. On the altar the human reaches up to the divine, and the divine comes down to touch the human and transform it into something purer, nobler, and holier. It happens to the bread and wine that become Our Lord’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, something we consume to become more like him in Holy Communion just as he condescended to become more like us through his Incarnation. In this sense Our Lord is the Altar too: in his own Person he is the threshold between the human and the divine. Let’s embrace the humanity he shows us so that he can draw us more deeply into the divine life.