PRIESTS OF THE OLD COVENANT
From the very dawn of its history, the human race has always sensed a need for those individuals, who despite having received a mission in very different ways, act as God's mediators and converse with Him on behalf of others. Certain men were made responsible for offering prayers of supplication, sacrifice and expiation to God in the name of the whole people. The obligation to render public worship to God, to recognize Him as the Supreme Lord and First Principle, to be directed towards Him as the Ultimate Goal, to give God thanks and to win over His benevolence has never been lost sight of although in many periods and places the consciousness of this obligation was darkened to a great extent by the worship of false deities instead of the true God. Nevertheless, it has always been present.
With the first rays of Divine Revelation appeared the mysterious and venerable personage of Melchisedech (see Gn 14:18), priest and king whom the author of the Letter to the Hebrews sees as a prefiguring of Jesus Christ (see Heb 5:10; 6:20; 7:1-11, 15).
During the Exodus crossing through the desert of Sinai, God build up the people of Israel as "a kingdom of priests and a consecrated nation" (Ex 19:6). Yet within this people, completely priestly in nature, God chose one of the twelve tribes, that of Levi, for liturgical service. Those priests were consecrated by means of unique rite (see Ex 29:1-30) and their functions, duties and rites were established in a detailed way, above all in the book of Leviticus. The members of this tribe, priestly by excellence, did not receive part in any inheritance when the people was able to settle down in the Promised Land. God Himself was the lot of their inheritance (see Jos 13:33).
Having been appointed to proclaim the Word of God (see Ml 2:7-9) and to build up communion and peace with God by means of sacrifice and prayer, the priest was always a source of hope, of glory, of strength, and of liberation within the people of Israel which maintained its faith in the future Messiah.
Solomon's admirable temple was a symbol and an image of that priesthood so full of majesty and mystery. The historian Josephus Flavius narrates that the victorious conqueror Alexander the Great made a reverential inclination before the High Priest (see Antiquities of the Jews, 11, 8, 5) and the book of the prophet Daniel who describes the punishment inflicted upon King Balthazar for having profaned the sacred vessels of the temple at his banquettes (see Dan 5:1-30).
In spite of all, this priesthood and its sacrifices were incapable of bring about the definitive salvation only to be achieved by Jesus Christ's sacrifice (see Heb 5:3; 7:27; 10:1-4).
The Church's liturgy, though, sees in this Old Testament priesthood a prefiguring of the New Covenant's ordained ministry. For example, the Church according to its Latin rite makes the following supplication in the prayer of consecration during the ordination of priests:
"Lord, Father of Holiness... in the Old Covenant the grades of priesthood became ever more perfect by means of holy signs... when you gave the High Priests, elected to rule the people, companions of a lesser order and dignity to help them as collaborators..."
It was a priest of the Old Covenant, Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, who solemnly announced the imminent arrival of "the rising Sun to visit us, to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace" (Lk 1:78-79).
All these prefigurements of the priesthood in the Old Testament find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, "the Only Mediator between God and mankind" (1 Tm 2:5) The very fact that the Old Testament priesthood prefigures that of the New and Eternal Covenant confers upon it its majesty and glory.
Saint Paul illustriously summarizes the dignity and the functions of the Christian ministerial priesthood with the following phrase: "People must think of us as Christ's servants, stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God" (1 Co 4:1).