Around the parish halls and vestibules of the Catholic churches scattered throughout the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, visitors are able to see this year’s poster of the seminarians gathered with Archbishop Michael J Sheehan. Some of their faces are known in our parish communities, and some have kept a lower profile, but all have prayed and discerned with regards to this special part of their lives. It recalls a time before the abuse scandals and the fiery controversial topics facing the priesthood today. As David’s Psalm 110 decrees, “You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.” But who was this first priest? And why is his little known image so important to the Church today?
The short story of Melchizedek begins in chapter 14 of Genesis with one of the lesser known or discussed events in the life of Abram, patriarch of all western religions. In fact, scholars have often pointed to how this chapter almost seems out of context with the Abram we come to know through the rest of the book. The patriarch is often depicted as an older, humble man who is nomadic, faithful, and although he emerged from a strongly polytheistic society in Mesopotamia, became the champion of one true God.
Abrams travels under the direction of the Lord are joined by his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, but little is mentioned about the entourage that was needed to care for the possessions and livestock of the extended family. Along the way, the patriarch is tested time and again, and even visited by God Himself. When they finally arrived in Canaan, which was long before the Hebrews came out of Egypt and became established there, the land was already populated by a variety of people, mostly Amorites and immigrants from Mesopotamia (Iraq and Syria) and Anatolia (Turkey).
The Bible student discovers that Abram has far more possessions than he/she was previously told, as does his nephew in his own right. Because they have too much livestock, the already drained natural resources are put to a more severe use, and in his wisdom, Abram decides that he and Lot must separate for the good of the land and the people on it. Abram gave Lot his choice of where he preferred to be, and the younger man eyed the overly fertile land of the plains east and southeast of the Jordan River. The nephew settled there and became involved in the politics and theology of the major township of the “five cities of the plain,” a place called Sodom.
Under the administration of King Bera of Sodom, the five cities rebelled against their overseers, the Elamites (mostly of Persian origin) of Mesopotamia, and using the great distance between them and their masters, avoided the laws of the kingdom and were known for highwaymanship and crimes along the great trade routes that connected places as far away as India and Afghanistan with Egypt and Babylon. There is nothing written in the Hebrew books that would suggest the people of Sodom and their region were ever good people. They engaged in all sorts of vice, were not a welcoming community, and were abusive with their freakish judicial system. They were also predominantly polytheistic pagans.
King Chedorlaomer of Elam had enough, and in the thirteenth year of his cities dominance over the plains, he called for help which was answered by Amraphel, and almost mythical king in an almost mythical land to the north of Mesopotamia. Amraphel brought together three more kings and the five armies prepared for almost an entire year for an attack on the Jordan Plain.
The invaders were insistent on the removal of the evil that possessed the valley, and they swore to smite every man. What they did was moreorless a cleansing of the entire region, and when they conquered the land of the five cities, they took everything with them including people and possessions. Lot, his family, and belongings were part of the booty they collected.
Abram was near Hebron, camped with friends, some of whom likely shared his monotheistic views, when a survivor of the onslaught reached him with the news of what had happened. The patriarch is not portrayed as having any particular allegiance to the area, but he did vow to rescue Lot and his family. As a momentary display of his wealth and power, Abram was able to amass an army of more than 300 just from his herdsmen, servants, and kin. He led the pursuit of the conquerors into the Syrian Desert and caught them just north of Damascus. There, the patriarch led guerilla attacks at night and secured not only Lot and his family, but all the people and possessions that had been taken from the Jordan Plain.
When the rescue party returned to the valley, they were first met by the King of Sodom, who was so pleased to see his kingdom restored that he willingly offered all the possessions, goods, and livestock that had been recovered to Abram for the people he had brought home. Abram, of course, had no intention of keeping the people for himself, but declined the king’s reward for their return, saying that he had made a covenant with God that he would not accept any gift from the King of Sodom, who could then say that he had made Abram wealthy.
And then the high point of the story: Melchizedek, called a priest and the King of Salem, which Bible scholars assume to be Jerusalem and would actually have been named Zion at that time, also came out to meet the returning victors. What Melchizedek brought in reward was bread and wine. He blessed it and offered it to Abram, praising and blessing the patriarch in the name of one God most high, Creator of heaven and earth. In a world that was almost exclusively pagan, this gesture was a great move that would indelibly link Melchizedek to the entire future of the Christian faith. This was a preview of the Christ who would one day raise bread and wine in blessing to the Father as a memorial to His saving sacrifice for all humanity.
Today’s challenges to the priesthood are every bit as severe as those of the first priest, Melchizedek, although not entirely the same. The ancient priest was surrounded by people who did not believe in God, or at least one god, and stood up to proclaim truth. Modern priests not only have to face unbelievers but also the challenge of understanding what life in God’s kingdom is honestly about, and how our human response is to occur. As a people of faith we pray for those who have chosen the call to religious life, not only in their learning and growth with God, but also in the perseverance and fortitude that will carry them to leading us in future generations.
“You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.”