The Order of Melchisedech
A Sermon by St. Ambrose, A.D. 340-397
The Christian Sacraments are older than the Jewish. You have come to
the altar of God, you have seen the sacraments placed there, and you
wonder to see there a created thing; nevertheless it is a solemn and an
unusual created thing. Someone has said perhaps: God showed great favor
to the Jews. He rained manna on them from heaven (Exod. xvi. 15). What
more has He given His own faithful; what more has He given to those to
whom He promised more?
Take in what I now say. The mysteries of the Christians were before
those of the Jews; and more sacred are the sacraments of the Christians
than those of the Jews. How can this be? Pay heed to this. Where did
the Jews begin? From Judah, the great-grandson of Abraham; or, if you
wish to understand it that way, from the Law; that is, when the Jews
merited to receive the Law. So they are called Jews from the
great-grandson of Abraham, or from the time of the saintly Moses. And
if God then rained manna from heaven on the Jews, murmuring against
Him, the figure of these holy sacraments preceded this: in Abraham's
time, when he collected three hundred and eighteen well-appointed men,
and pursued his enemies, and brought his grandchild back from
captivity. Then, returning a victor, there met him Melchisedech the
priest, and he offered bread and wine (Gen. xiv. 18).
Who had the bread and wine? Abraham did not have it. But who had it?
Melchisedech. He then is the author of the sacraments (Heb. vii. I
seq.). Who is Melchisedech? He who is made known to us as the King of
Justice, the King of Peace. Who is the King of Justice? Can any man be
King of Justice? Who then is King of Justice if not the Justice of God,
Who is also the Peace of God, the Wisdom of God? Who could say: Peace I
leave with you, my peace I give unto you? (Jn. xiv. 27.)
Let you then grasp, that these sacraments which you receive are prior
in time to those of the Law of Moses; whatever the Jews may have to
say. And that the Christian people had begun before the Jewish people
had begun: we through predestination, they in name.
Melchisedech therefore offered a sacrifice of bread and wine. Who is
Melchisedech? He was, says the Apostle, without father, without mother,
without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life,
but likened unto the Son of God, continueth a priest forever; and this
we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews (vii). Without father, he says,
and without mother. In this whom does he resemble? The Son of God. For
the Son of God, in His heavenly generation, was born without a mother:
He was born of the Father alone. And again when He was born of the
Virgin, He was born without father: for He was not begotten of the seed
of man, but born of the Holy Ghost (Mt. i. 20) and of the Virgin Mary,
and brought forth from her virginal womb, in all things as the Son of
Melchisedech was also a priest, as Christ is a priest; to Whom it was
said: Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech
(Ps. cix. 4). Who therefore is the author of the sacraments if not the
Lord Jesus? These sacraments have come down from heaven; from whence
all counsel comes. It was a truly great and divine miracle that God
should rain manna from heaven on His people; and that the people should
eat though they did not work.
But perhaps you will say: My bread is ordinary bread. On the contrary,
this bread is bread only before the words of the sacred rite. When the
consecration has been added, from being bread it becomes the Body of
Christ. Let us therefore prove this. How can that which is bread be the
Body of Christ? By consecration. Consecration by what words; by whose
words? Those of the Lord Jesus. For all the other words which are said
previous to this are said by the priest: the praises that are offered
to God, the prayer that is offered for the congregation, for rulers,
and for others. But when the moment comes to consecrate the venerable
sacrament, the priest will no longer use his own words, but will use
the words of Christ. It is therefore the Word of Christ that
consecrates this sacrament.
Who is the Word of Christ? Who but He by Whom all things were made. The
Lord commanded, and the heavens were made. The Lord commanded, and the
earth was made. The Lord commanded and the seas were made. The Lord
commanded, and every creature was brought forth (Gen. i). You see then
how wondrous in work is the Word of Christ.
If then there is such power in the Word of the Lord Jesus, so that the
things that were not by It began to be, how much the more can It change
what is into another thing? The heavens did not exist, nor the sea, nor
the land, yet hearken to David speaking: He spoke, and they were made.
He commanded, and they were created (Ps. cxlviii. 5). And accordingly I
answer you; that the bread was not the Body of Christ before the
consecration. But I say to you that after the consecration it is now
Christ's Body. He spoke, and It was made. He commanded, and It was
created. You were yourself; but you were your old self. After you were
consecrated you began to be a new creature. Do you wish to know what
sort of new creature? Everyone, says the Scripture, in Christ is a new
creature (I Cor. v. 17).
Understand therefore how the words of Christ have changed every
creature; and now change, when He wills, the order of nature. You wish
to know in what manner? Listen then; and let us take an example from
His own birth. It is the rule of nature that a man is born only from
the conjugal relation of man and woman. But because the Lord willed it,
because He chose this sacred means (sacramentum), Christ, that is, the
one Mediator of God and men, the Man Jesus Christ (I. Tim. ii. 5), was
born of the Holy Ghost, and the Virgin Mary. You see then how, contrary
to the order and custom of nature, a Man was born of a Virgin?
Consider another example. The Jewish people were hemmed in by the
Egyptians, and behind them was the sea. By divine command Moses struck
the waters with a rod, and the waves divided; not certainly in accord
with nature's laws, but in accord with the grace of the heavenly
command (Exod. xiv). And consider another example. The people were
thirsty, and they came upon a well. But it was a bitter well. So the
saintly Moses cast a certain tree into the well, and the fountain that
was bitter was made sweet; that is, it changed the quality of its
nature, and was turned into sweetness (Exod xv. 23). Consider a fourth
example. An iron axe had fallen into the water, and since it was iron
it sank. And Elisaeus cast in a piece of wood, and the iron swam upon
the surface of the water; and this purely is contrary to the nature of
iron (IV Kgs. vi. 6), which is a far heavier element than water.
From these examples therefore you may understand how great is the power
of the heavenly word. If it can work a wonder in an earthly well, if
the heavenly word can work wonders in other things, will it not work
similarly in the heavenly Sacraments? And so you have learned that the
Body of Christ is made from bread; and that wine and water are mingled
in the chalice, but that this becomes Blood by the consecration of the
heavenly words. But perhaps you will say: 'I see no appearance of
blood.' But it possesses a likeness to it. For as you have taken on the
likeness of his death, so do you also drink the likeness of His
Precious Blood: that there may be no horror of spilt blood, and yet
that the price of our Redemption may be efficacious. You have therefore
learned that what you receive is the Body of Christ.
The words of the Lord make and consecrate His own Body and Blood. And
would you know by what heavenly words It is consecrated? Here then are
the words. The Priest says: Grant us, he says, that this oblation may
be attributed to us, confirmed, an offering of our reason, acceptable
to Thee, as the figure of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Who, on the day before He suffered took bread in His holy hands, looked
up to heaven to Thee, Holy Father Almighty, Eternal God, and giving
thanks, He blessed, broke it, and gave what was broken to His Apostles
and to His Disciples, saying: Take ye, and eat ye all of this; for this
is my body, which shall be broken for many (Lk. xxii. 19 V.I.)
In like manner also, on the day before He suffered, after He had
supped, He took the chalice, looked up to heaven to Thee, Holy Father
Almighty Eternal God, and giving thanks He blessed it and gave to His
Apostles and Disciples, saying: Take ye and drink ye all of this; for
this is my blood (Mt. xxvi. 27).
Consider all this. There are the words of the Evangelist up to Take ye,
whether of the Body or the Blood. From there on they are the words of
Christ: Take ye, and drink ye all of this; for this is my blood.
Consider each word.
Who, he says, on the day before He suffered took bread in His holy
hands. Before it is consecrated it is bread. When the words of
consecration have been added, it is the Body of Christ. Then listen to
Him saying Take ye, and eat ye all of this; for this is my body. Again,
before the words of consecration, it is a chalice filled with wine and
water. Where the words of Christ have wrought, there the Blood of
Christ, Which has redeemed His people, is made. You see then in how
many ways the words of Christ are able to change all things. Lastly,
the Lord Jesus Himself testifies to us that we receive His Body and
Blood. Are we to doubt His honesty and His testimony?
Now return with me to the main subject of my sermon. It was a great and
venerable sign that manna rained from heaven upon the Hebrews (Exod.
xvi. 13). But reflect. Which is the greater wonder: the manna from
heaven, or the Body of Christ? The Body of Christ, the Creator of
heaven. Then again he who ate manna is dead; but he that will eat of
This Body his sins will be forgiven him, and he shall not die for ever.
So not without meaning do you say: Amen; in that moment confessing in
spirit that you receive the Body of Christ. What the tongue confesses,
let the heart hold fast.
That you may know that this is a divine mystery, its Figure preceded
it. Learn then how great is this sacrament. Consider what He says: As
often as you shall do this, do it in commemoration of Me, until I come
again (cf. I Cor. xi. 26). And the Priest says: Mindful therefore of
His most glorious passion, and of His Resurrection from the dead, and
of His Ascension into heaven, we offer Thee this immaculate Host, this
reasoning victim, this unbloody sacrifice, this holy Bread, and the
Chalice of eternal life; and we beg and pray that by the hands of the
Angels thou wilt receive this Offering upon Thy heavenly altar, as Thou
didst deign to receive the gifts of Thy servant, Abel the Just, and the
sacrifice of Abraham our father, and that which the High Priest
Melchisedech offered to Thee.
So then, as often as you shall receive, what does the Apostle say to
you? As often as you shall receive, you shall announce the death of the
Lord. If we announce His death, we announce the forgiveness of sins. If
as often as His Blood is shed, it is shed unto the remission of sins, I
ought to receive It always; that my sins may always be forgiven. I who
am always sinning ought always to have what heals me.
May the Lord our God preserve you in the grace He has given you, and
may He deign to enlighten yet more the eyes He has opened, through His
only Son, the Lord God our King and Savior, through Whom and with Whom
be there to Him, together with the Holy Ghost, praise, honor, glory,
magnificence, from all ages, and now, and for ever and ever, world
without end. Amen.