High on the wall at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, in the glitter of the fifth-century mosaic, the standing figure of Melchizedek presents bread and wine to Abraham who, like an emperor, sits on horseback clad in a toga at the head of a cavalcade of knights. Melchizedek has no horse, no troops, none of the panoply of worldly power, as he offers hospitality, refreshment, and a divine blessing.
On foot, he may appear the social inferior, even submissive in handing over bread and wine, those riches of the earth and human labour which sustain life and celebrate it. Yet the artist does much to suggest such appearance is deceptive: Melchizedek also wears the toga, surmounted by a jewelled cloak, and he all but dwarfs the horse and rider. And at the top of the mosaic, Christ, whom the author of Hebrews lauds as a 'priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek,' points down from heaven to this king and priest who foreshadows his own royal priesthood. Here is an other-worldly power made manifest on earth, an order of reality where the ruler gives instead of taking, brings justice in the generous surrender of all he has, who refreshes us by his gifts. The mosaic in the nave looks forward to the Eucharist celebrated round the altar and in this feast of Corpus Christi.
Perhaps it is relatively easy for us to see the priestly dimension of Christ's saving work, the self-sacrifice of the cross which is conveyed in the pouring of wine and the breaking of bread. We grasp the connection between the signs and the suffering they signify as we rehearse the words and gestures of Christ at the Last Supper, and enter into the meaning which he gave to his death. In sharing the meal, we discover the sacrifice. We understand at least something of the prayer that goes up to the Father, which carries within it our deepest and conflicted longings for love and forgiveness.
The mysterious figure of Melchizedek, both priest and king, then helps us to grasp the transformative power and dignity of this sacrifice. Through the words of Jesus the bread and wine are changed into his own risen body and blood. And we ourselves are transformed by receiving this sacrament with open and contrite hearts.
A certain medieval theologian, one Thomas Aquinas OP, wrote the antiphon to be sung on this feast of Corpus Christi: 'O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given us!' The mind is filled with grace. We don't leave Mass unaltered. The real presence is a fact, but not a cold fact, nor a brute fact. There is a meeting of hearts; and in that, from that, a real sanctification gets underway within us. Below the levels we can adequately gauge or sense, God is powerfully at work to make us holy, to fit us for the glory we are called to share.
In other words, the figure of Melchizedek identifies for us the true power and dignity of God's love. St Luke's Gospel tries to capture the bounty, the prodigality, of this Eucharistic love is his account of a different miracle, the feeding of the five thousand. The evangelist stresses that 'all ate as much as they wanted' while there was still plenty left over. Assembled and fed in companies of fifty, with food left over that is collected into twelve baskets, a rag-tag crowd has become the first manifestation of a new Israel, like the twelve tribes assembled in their thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens in the Book of Exodus. In Christ, God now makes us a holy people, a royal priesthood. To celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi is not only to celebrate the reality of the body and blood we receive at communion, but to acknowledge that through this gift we become ourselves members of that body of Christ in the world.
So, when Christ becomes our food and drink in this way he does not adopt a disguise, pretend to be what he is not. He shows himself most clearly for what he really is: the source of our new life in God. And by eating the body of Christ, by drinking his blood in this sacramental form, we accept his gift in a way that most clearly reveals our dependence on God, our hunger for his love.
That changes how we think about the world. It sharpens our appetite for the truth, and for the kingdom. With St Thomas we can pray together on this feast-day: 'O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given us!'