|Melchisedech, priest of the most high God|
The Church recognizes many and various realities from the Old Testament as figures for Christ’s gift of himself in the Most Holy Eucharist. On the Solemnity of Corpus Christi in the Ordinary Form, the Church read from the book of Exodus – how the people were cleansed and the covenant ratified through animal sacrifice at the foot of Mount Sinai.
In the Extraordinary Form, on the other hand, the Church put before us the figure of the Manna in the desert, through the reading of a passage from the Bread of Life Discourse.
There are so many images and figures for the Eucharist in the Old Testament – the Manna, the bread and wine offered by Melchisedech, the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Paschal Lamb, etc.! How are we to understand what each of these figures teaches us about the Blessed Sacrament? Further, we ask: Is there any one thing from Old Testament which is more completely or perfectly a figure for the Eucharist?
The ways in which something from the Old Testament may be a figure for the Eucharist
St. Thomas Aquinas asks this very question and makes the following distinction:
“We can consider three things in this sacrament: namely, that which is sacrament only, and this is the bread and wine; that which is both reality and sacrament, to wit, Christ's true body; and lastly that which is reality only, namely, the effect of this sacrament.” (ST III, q.73, a.6)
Therefore, there are three respects in which an Old Testament reality can be a foreshadowing of the Eucharist: 1) According to the bread and wine used as matter for the Sacrament; 2) According to the Real Presence of Christ contained in the Sacrament; and 3) According to the grace which is given through this Blessed Sacrament.
The Angelic Doctor continues:
“Consequently, in relation to what is sacrament only, the chief figure of this sacrament was the oblation of Melchisedech, who offered up bread and wine.
“In relation to Christ crucified, Who is contained in this sacrament, its figures were all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, especially the sacrifice of expiation, which was the most solemn of all.
“While with regard to its effect, the chief figure was the Manna, having in it the sweetness of every taste (Wisdom 16:20), just as the grace of this sacrament refreshes the soul in all respects.”
The oblation of Melchisedech
For he testifieth: Thou art a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedech. (Hebrews 7:17; cf. Psalm 109:4)
In Genesis 14, we read of the battle which Abram waged against the four kings – Amraphel the king of Sennaar, Arioch king of Pontus, Chodorlahomor of the Elamites, and Thadal king of nations. These kings had waged war on Sodom (before the Lord destroyed that town) and had taken Lot captive and had despoiled him of all his possessions.
Abram, when he heard of this, rose up and rode out against the four kings, and (overtaking them by night) defeated them. He rescued Lot and restored the inheritance of the city of Sodom.
Upon this great victory, we read of Melchisedech:
But Melchisedech the king of Salem, bringing forth bread and wine, for he was the priest of the most high God, Blessed him, and said: Blessed be Abram by the most high God, who created heaven and earth. And blessed be the most high God, by whose protection the enemies are in thy hands. (Genesis 14:18-20)
Abram then gave the tithe to the high priest Melchisedech, as a sign that even the Levitical priesthood (which would spring from his loins) was inferior to that of Christ the true High Priest of God.
This offering by Melchisedech is the primary instance in which bread and wine are offered in sacred worship in the Old Testament. (they also were used in the Todah sacrificial rite)
[Further, a tradition which is held both by St. Jerome and by St. Thomas Aquinas (among many other saints and Doctors) maintains that Melchisedech is none other than Sem, the son of Noe.]
Yom Kippur and the sacrifices of the Old Law
But Christ, being come an high priest of the good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hand, that is, not of this creation: Neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but by his own blood, entered once into the holies, having obtained eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11-12)
While all the sacrifices of the Old Law point to the perfect sacrifice which Christ would offer in his own blood upon the Cross, that expiatory sacrifice of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the chief figure of the Crucifixion of our Savior.
On this day, the only time in the year, the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies and, taking the blood of sacrifice, would sprinkle this blood in the direction of the Ark of the Covenant. Further, the blood would be sprinkled in several other places in the Temple. The priest, on this single day, invoked the Most Holy Name of the Lord – seeking mercy for himself and for the people.
This was the only day of the year in which anyone entered the Holy of Holies, which was the most sacred part of the ancient Temple. This Holy of Holies was a sign and figure for the eternal sanctuary of heaven, which Christ opened through the shedding of his own Most Precious Blood.
The Manna in the desert
I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the desert, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven; that if any man eat of it, he may not die. (John 6:48-50)
Our Savior, in the Bread of Life Discourse, very clearly sets the Manna in the desert as a figure for the Eucharist. The very word, manna is derived from the Hebrew, meaning: “What is it?” Indeed, for roughly 1500 years, the Jews had been asking this question – a question which would only be answered in Christ, who would fulfill this mystical figure with the reality of the Holy Eucharist.
Thou didst feed thy people with the food of angels, and gavest them bread from heaven prepared without labour; having in it all that is delicious, and the sweetness of every taste. For they sustenance shewed thy sweetness to thy children, and serving every man’s will, it was turned to what every man liked. (Wisdom 16:19-21)
As the living Bread which gives eternal life, the Eucharist was primarily foreshadowed by the Manna which sustained the people in the desert.
In this respect also, since the Manna was the food for their journey to the Promised Land, we find in this bread from heaven the figure of the Eucharist as Viaticum for the dying.
The Paschal Lamb
For Christ our pasch is sacrificed. Therefore let us feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:7-8)
The Angel of the Schools explains how the Passover Lamb is, in every respect, the chief figure for the Most Holy Eucharist:
“The Paschal Lamb foreshadowed this sacrament in these three ways.
“First of all, because it was eaten with unleavened loaves, according to Exodus 12:8: They shall eat flesh … and unleavened bread.
“As to the second because it was immolated by the entire multitude of the children of Israel on the fourteenth day of the moon; and this was a figure of the Passion of Christ, Who is called the Lamb on account of His innocence.
“As to the effect, because by the blood of the Paschal Lamb the children of Israel were preserved from the destroying Angel, and brought from the Egyptian captivity; and in this respect the Paschal Lamb is the chief figure of this sacrament, because it represents it in every respect.”
O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament have left us a memorial of your Passion, grant us, we pray, so to revere the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood that we may always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption. Who live and reign with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.