A Kingdom of Priests

You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:6)

“I’m a priest,” I told my wife, tears streaming down my face. It was a starry October night long ago. I couldn’t see my wife’s face as we walked back to our New Haven apartment from the garage across the street where we parked our battered blue Volkswagen. But I doubted she was any more astonished by this pronouncement than I. I was then 24 years old, married a little more than a year and working on a book about politics. I certainly did not consider myself religious – at least not in the church-going sense. With few exceptions, including the day my wife and I were married, I had not set foot inside a church since prep school, when Sunday services and daily chapel were mandatory.

We had gone that evening to see a film called Ryan’s Daughter. It held particular interest for us because it was filmed along the western coast of Ireland, where we had traveled the previous summer. I remember commenting on the fine performance by Trevor Howard, who played a village priest. Then I stopped and unaccountably burst into tears. It was as if something within me had arisen from a great depth and come gasping to the surface. “What’s the matter?” asked my wife, alarmed. That’s when I made my cryptic announcement that I was a priest, which alarmed her still more. “What does that mean?” she said, already a bit wary. Without the slightest hesitation or notion of what I was talking about, I firmly repeated, “I’m a priest.”

The next day I went to see the only priest I knew, the Episcopal chaplain at Yale, looking for some assurance that I wasn’t cracking up. He was an Australian named Ian Siggins who had married my wife and me the previous fall in a little chapel at the base of Harkness Tower. I told him my tale and hoped he would understand what I was talking about, because I certainly did not. He gave me a knowing smile and said, “Every year one or two young men like you come to my office looking confused. It can be a bit unnerving.” Yes, but what was I supposed to do now? “Wait for further instructions,” he told me.

While I waited for further instructions, I went about my business much as before. I finished the book and got a job as a corporate speechwriter at a big insurance company in Hartford. My wife and I started a family. Everything seemed to be going along just fine, and yet I found myself growing more and more dissatisfied. I spent an afternoon with Ian Siggins’ successor as Episcopal chaplain at Yale and at his suggestion joined a local Episcopal congregation. In due course I presented myself to a bishop of the Connecticut diocese, and we had a nice chat. He was friendly but a bit perplexed, since I did not pretend to have a vocation for the ministry. Nevertheless, I began the process of becoming a candidate for the priesthood, and even got myself admitted to seminary. But in the end I didn’t go. There were all kinds of family and financial circumstances standing in the way. These might have been overcome, but I could not get around a small point that loomed ever larger as the process moved forward. At every step I was asked why I wanted to become a priest, and I always had difficulty answering. It wasn’t just that I felt no particular calling for the priesthood. The truth was that I didn’t want to become a priest; I felt that I already was one, even if I didn’t have a clue what that meant.

The same day I mailed my letter to the bishop withdrawing as a candidate, I came across a verse in Psalm 110 that almost leapt off the page at me: “Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Here was my answer, even if was still a long way from knowing what the order of Melchizedek was. Melchizedek, as it turned out, had a walk-on part in the Book of Genesis as the king of Salem (Jerusalem) and a priest who offered bread and wine to Abraham after he returned victorious from battle. His lineage thus predates the Levitical priesthood in the Old Testament and is entirely separate from it. The scarcity of historical detail gave rise to all sorts of speculation in ancient rabbinical literature. A text found at Qumrum described Melchizedek as an angel of light who would pass judgment in heaven after the coming of the Lord. He was venerated by a pre-Christian sect called the Melchizedekites, who were later branded as heretics because they regarded Melchizedek as a heavenly power superior to Christ. Mormons claim the same priestly lineage today, as do many New Age types.

The brief passages in Genesis and Psalms were not the only biblical references to Melchizedek. The author of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament claimed that Christ was a priest after the order of Melchizedek. Jesus was not a Levite and therefore could not have served as a priest in the temple in Jerusalem, much less enter the sanctuary to offer blood sacrifices as the Levitical priests did. But then, according to Hebrews, Jesus ministered in a “heavenly sanctuary,” not in a temple made by men, and his priesthood was not temporal but eternal. And because he was without sin, he was obliged to make only one sacrifice for himself and for the sins of all mankind. Under Jewish law, atonement for sin could only be accomplished by the shedding of blood, and since Jesus had shed his own blood, there was no further need of blood sacrifices; indeed, no further need for the temple.

The temple -- and before it the tent of meeting -- were constructed to veil God’s presence from the people. Only Levites who had been set apart for service in the temple were permitted into the outer sanctuary. The high priest alone entered the inner sanctuary, or Holy of Holies, and then only once a year to make atonement for the sins of the people. Now that all that had been dispensed with, argued the author of Hebrews, “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus.” By sanctuary he meant not a temple made with human hands but God’s dwelling place in the human heart.

“Every shoemaker can be a priest,” declared the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, whose own reading of the Bible led him to reject the Roman Catholic priesthood on much the same grounds as the author of Hebrews rejected the Levites. Luther denied that there was a separate and higher order of humanity that was empowered by ordination to make a fresh sacrifice of Christ upon the altar during the mass. If Christ died once for all humanity on the cross, he could not be sacrificed anew. Nor did priests, in pronouncing absolution, have any inherent power to forgive sins. By virtue of baptism, Luther insisted, every Christian belonged to a common spiritual estate he called “the priesthood of all believers.” In establishing his covenant with Moses at Mt. Sinai, the Lord had promised, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” His was not a priesthood set apart from the people but a people set part to be priests. To enter the sanctuary then became not an act of defilement but an act of fulfillment.

Hebrews 10:19

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