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Understanding why priests are called ‘Father’

By Brian Pizzalato

 

Adam, as we discovered in the previous column, was appointed by God to be high priest of humanity. He was called by God the Father to minister and offer sacrifice in the temple of creation by serving and guarding the sanctuary of that temple, namely Eden.

 

What about the priesthood after Adam? Was there priesthood between Adam and Aaron and the Levites?

 

The answer is yes. There are two main ideas that will help us see this, family, in particular fatherhood, and sacrifice.

 

Let’s look at sacrifice first.

 

With regard to sacrifice we know that “…every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices…” (Hebrews 8:3). Adam, it seems, was called to offer himself as a gift and sacrifice for his bride, Eve. We know from Genesis 3:1-7 that Adam does not live up to his calling as high priest to offer this ultimate sacrifice. Instead of imaging God through a loving self-sacrifice on the holy and blessed seventh day, he images the beasts of the sixth day, which are not made in the image of God. In desiring to be like God without God, Adam places himself on the level of the animals, thus de-humanizing the human race.

 

Man, as a result of original sin, will always be tempted to want to become like God without God, to use his free will in such a way that he is no longer truly free, but a slave to sin, a slave to his own wants and desires, a slave to his instincts and passions. This means being more animal-like. God the Father shows Adam and Eve this by offering the first sacrifice recorded in Scripture, “…the Lord God made leather garments, with which he clothed them” (Genesis 3:21).

 

From this point forward, we will see a prominence of animal sacrifice, though they are not the only sacrifices. However, we must not confuse what the Israelites were commanded to do during the Aaronic high priesthood with what happens before, because they are very different. Only with Aaron are the Israelites commanded to offer certain sacrifices morning and evening, as well as numerous other sacrifices. This will be discussed in the next month’s column.

 

Prior to the priesthood of Aaron, no animal sacrifice was explicitly commanded. Sacrifices could be offered if one pleased. One could offer a sacrifice in good times or in bad, in thanksgiving or in atonement for sin, and as sealing of a covenant oath.

 

Now let us turn to the notion of the familial priesthood.

 

Adam is the father of the human race, as well as the high priest of humanity. Thus, there is an intimate link between priesthood and fatherhood. The priesthood leading up to Aaron and the Levites is a familial priesthood. What is important to understand during this period of salvation history is that the father of the family is a priest, and the prominence of the first-born son in the family. The first-born son was meant to receive a double portion of the inheritance of the father; this was the first-born son’s birthright, as well as the priestly blessing of the father. The first-born son was meant to become the new father-priest of the family. However, frequently throughout Genesis there is a failure of first-born sons to live up to their calling.

 

Adam was a priest, and Cain was his first-born son. Cain offers a sacrifice, a priestly act, which is not pleasing to the Lord. Yahweh gives him the opportunity to repent. Instead, Cain murders his brother, Abel. Thus we have the failure of a first-born son who is supposed to have a priestly primacy in the family after the death of his father. (cf. Genesis 4:3-8)

 

Adam and Eve then have another son, Seth, who is said to be made after his father’s image, thus indicating his primacy in the family, as Adam had had a primacy in the family because he was made in the image of the Father and blessed by the Father.

 

The narrative of Genesis then leads us through a genealogy from Seth to Noah, seemingly the first-born son of Lamech. Noah's first act of worship after the great flood subsided was the presentation of “burnt offerings on the altar,” thus performing a priestly act (Genesis 8:20). Noah’s first-born son was Shem, who is blessed by Noah in Genesis 3:26.

 

The narrative then brings us, again through a genealogy, from Shem to Abram, the first-born son of Terah. In Genesis 14, Abram is blessed by the priest-king Melchizedek. Melchizedek offers a sacrifice of bread and wine and blesses Abram. It is interesting that the ancient rabbis and the early Church fathers identified Melchizedek as none other that the first-born son of Noah, Shem.

 

Abram was acquainted with sacrifice. Soon after obeying the Lord's command, he built an altar at the oak of Moreh (12:6), where the Lord had revealed Himself. He built another altar between Bethel and Ai and called upon the name of Yahweh (12:8; 13:3f.), and another at Hebron by the oaks of Mamre (13:18).

 

Abram has a son named Isaac, and Isaac is the father of Esau and Jacob. Esau, the first-born, sells his birth-right to Jacob, and later Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the priestly blessing. (cf. Genesis 27:27-29). We know that Jacob was accustomed to offer sacrifice as well, for example in Gilead in Genesis 31:54.

 

From Adam to the time of Aaron and the Levites, we have a domestic-familial priesthood focused primarily of the father and the first-born son, and, of course, various non-obligatory sacrifices. In next month’s column we will see how, as a result of sin, the priesthood and the sacrificial system are radically changed.

 

Printed with permission from the Northern Cross, Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota.

 

Brian Pizzalato is the Director of Catechesis, R.C.I.A. & Lay Apostolate for the Diocese of Duluth. He is also a faculty member of the Theology and Philosophy departments of the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England. He writes a monthly catechetical article for The Northern Cross, of the Diocese of Duluth, and is a contributing author to the Association for Catechumenal Ministry's R.C.I.A. Participants Book. Brian is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute and is also in the process of writing the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition program at the Maryvale Institute.

 

Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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Jul
31

Liturgical Calendar

July 31, 2014

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Priest

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Gospel of the Day

Mt 13:47-53

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Date
07/31/14
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First Reading:: Jer 18: 1-6
Gospel:: Mt 13: 47-53

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St. Ignatius of Loyola »

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Date
07/28/14

Homily of the Day

Mt 13:47-53

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