According to Mark’s Gospel, as Jesus emerged from his baptism, his identity as God’s Son was confirmed by a voice from the heavens: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”1 Because he is the only begotten Son of the Father, Jesus is called as high priest of the new covenant. Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews indicates this when it insists that Jesus, far from taking this honor upon himself, like Aaron, Moses’ brother, is called by God.2
Jesus can be the high priest of the new covenant because he is the only begotten Son of the Father. Hence, he is “God from God” and “true God from true God.”3 Because of this, as we read a few chapters on in Hebrews, “he has obtained so much more excellent a ministry as he is mediator of a better covenant, enacted on better promises.”4
Despite being God, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”5 And so, he learned obedience to the will of the Father “from what he suffered.”6
Note that the inspired author of Hebrews writes that he is “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”7 You see, to obey Jesus is to obey the Father. This “obedience of faith,” as Paul calls it in his Letter to the Romans, is the work of the Holy Spirit in and through believers.8
We encounter in our first reading the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. King of Salem, Melchizedek came to Abraham out of nowhere. He offered to God an acceptable sacrifice of bread and wine.9 This is referred to in Eucharistic Prayer I, also known as the Roman Canon.
Asking the Father to look upon our offering of bread and wine “with a serene and kindly countenance and asking him to accept our gifts, the priest refers to the sacrifices of Abel and Abraham and then says,
…and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek,
a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim10
Now, Melchizedek, contrary to local belief, is a one-off. From a Christian perspective, he is a prefiguration of Christ. He is not mentioned much in the canon of scripture. Only in Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and in the Letter the Hebrews. It is the latter that provides the hermeneutical key by comparing him explicitly to Christ.
Only Jesus Christ is “a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.”11 Jesus' offering of bread and wine, which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is transformed into his very self, that is pleasing to the Father. In the Holy Mass, even a daily Mass in Ordinary Time, the entire Paschal Mystery is made present.
Our Gospel happens early on in Mark’s chronology. Jesus has made Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee his home. It is from there, after calling the Twelve, that he initiates his public ministry in earnest. Our Gospel is one of five encounters with the Pharisees handed on in Mark. The issue is why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast according to the prescripts expected of observant Jews. Jesus makes clear that while he is with them, his followers should feast and not fast.
In each of these five encounters with the Pharisees in Capernaum, Jesus is presented as one who has higher authority, the authority of a great high priest, the authority of “a priest… in the line of Melchizedek.” Keep in mind that it was to Melchizedek that Abraham our father in faith gave a tenth of all he owned.
It becomes equally clear that Jesus’ authority is at odds with the religious expectations of most of his contemporaries. This remains true even now. Jesus does not exert his authority by seizing or asking his followers to seize the levers of worldly power, which is coercive and even violent. Rather, he was content to take the form of a slave. A slave is powerless. A slave serves. He is slave by choice, not by coercion. Returning to his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul describes himself as "slave of Jesus Christ."12 If we are obedient to Jesus, our salvation lies in our obedience to him, our following his Way of service. Like the Lord, we must choose this freely, everyday.
Unassuming, self-sacrificing service is the essence of being a Christian. This is easy to forget. The lowest ebbs in Church history are when the Church has forgotten this. Just as the object determines the method, the end determines the means. Hence, the kingdom of God cannot and will be fully realized by forceful, coercive, or manipulative means. Rather, it will be realized through humble, unassuming, self-emptying means that take the form of worship, service, and witness.
Perhaps the best witness we can give is, like Jesus, how we endure the suffering with which life inevitably confronts us. This is the power of the witness of Pope Saint John Paul II. He didn’t just write, talk, and preach about the dignity and worthiness of human life, by suffering so publicly he gave eloquent witness. Such a witness was also given by the non-violent and deeply Christian witness of Dr. King and all who sacrificed for civil rights in our country. Through non-violence and even love of enemy, they sought to realize the Christian tenet that all human beings, as bearers of the divine image, are created equal in dignity.
1 Mark 1:11.↩
2 Hebrews 5:5.↩
3 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 18.↩
4 Hebrews 8:6.↩
5 Philippians 2:7-8.↩
6 Hebrews 5:8.↩
7 Hebrews 5:9.↩
8 Romans 1:5.↩
9 Genesis 14:18-20.↩
10 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, Eucharistic Prayer I, sec. 93.↩
11 Psalm 110:4.↩
12 Romans 1:1.↩
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