Saturday, March 22, 2008

St. Melito of Sardis and Easter

Yesterday (Good Friday), I got an idea. I was casting around for some suitable Good Friday material and my gaze struck my copy of Melito of Sardis' On Pascha (the Vladimir Seminary Press edition). As I glanced at it, I realized that Melito made for excellent Good Friday (and Holy Saturday) reading. It isn't long, but is rich in its imagery and biblicism. Why, as the pictures show, my son even agreed! And we know how discerning a reader he is!

St. Melito, for those who don't know him, lived around 190 AD and was the bishop of Sardis. He was involved in the theological issues of his day, especially the Quartodeciman issue--which is especially appropriate this time of year, given that this dispute was over when to hold Easter. He also had a reputation, even among his opponents, as a prophet. The On Pascha is a reflection on the meaning of Easter, especially in light of the typology in the Old Testament which anticipated Jesus' death and resurrection.

The only way to describe Melito's style is baroque. It is written in the rhetorical style popular in the East at this time: Asiatic rhetoric (as opposed to the more spare Attic). That makes his style full of rhetorical tricks and effects which, even if this style isn't to your taste, takes your breath away. He takes the common images of Jesus in the Bible and just plays with them, combining and re-combining them to pull all possible meaning from them. Here is a good example of what I mean:

For he was born a son,
and led as a lamb,
and slaughtered as a sheep,
and buried as a man,
and rose from the dead as God,
being God by his nature and a man

He is all things.
He is law, in that he judges.
He is word, in that he teaches.
He is grace, in that he saves.
He is father, in that he begets.
He is son, in that his is begotten.
He is sheep, in that he suffers.
He is human, in that he is buried.
He is God, in that he is raised up.

This is Jesus the Christ,
to whom be the glory forever and forever. Amen.
On Pascha, 8-10

Melito's reflection begins with Exodus and the Passover, playing with the imagery of the lamb and its blood saving the people of Israel from the death of the firstborn of Egypt (described in full detail and pathos) and tying it in with Jesus' own death on a cross. He then moves on to Creation and the Fall. Then, he dwells on Jesus' death and on Israel's role in it (note that this section has opened Melito up for charges of anti-Semitism, so read with that in mind). He ends, of course, with Jesus' resurrection.

Throughout, he makes it clear that the types of Jesus represented in the Old Testament - notably the Passover Lamb, but also such figures as Isaac, Joseph et cetera - fade into insignificance in the light of Jesus' actual death and resurrection. While this encourages a certain supersessionism, the ardent desire to connect the Old Testament to Jesus is one of the strong points of Melito's writing. If we believe that we are only a graft onto the tree of Israel, we should be looking for anticipations of Jesus in the story of Israel. Melito makes it clear that these anticipations exist, but they are of less importance than the actual Jesus.

It is impossible, of course, to outline the whole book, so I can only counsel you to consider it for Lenten reading next year.

Meanwhile, I'll let Melito have the last word:

"It is I", says the Christ,
"I am he who destroys death,
and triumphs over the enemy,
and crushes Hades,
and binds the strong man,
and bears humanity off to the heavenly heights."
It is I", says the Christ."
On Pascha, 102.

Happy Easter!



Jim said...


You keep adding to my reading list. ;-) I may never catch up -- a good thing.



I wish you and yours a happy and blessed Pascha celebration.

Jim's Thoughts

Phil Snider said...

Ah good, the royalty check from St. Vlad's Seminary should be good one this quarter :).

Have a blessed Pascha to you as well.

who is wondering how to convince St. Vlad's Seminary to send review copies 8)

Tim A. Troutman said...

Too bad we don't have more of his work still extant.

Out of all the second century writings we've lost, I imagine that his would be the best find.

I was Melito of Sardis on Mike Aquilina's quiz: Which Church Father Are You?

Anonymous said...

i think you need to research what qurtodecimen means.Melito did not celebrate the pagan holiday easter