Melito of Sardis – Pastor, Theologian, and Poet

Melito of Sardis – Pastor, Theologian, and Poet

Melito is not a familiar name today. Until the last century, we could only find a mention of him in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, mostly in connection with the controversy over the day in which the feast of Pascha (Easter) was to be celebrated.

            Eusebius tells us that Melito was a “bishop of the church of Sardis, and a man well known at that time.”[1] He lists him among Christian writers who flourished in those days and who passed on to new generations “the sound and orthodox faith received from apostolic tradition.”[2] He paired him with Irenaeus and “others which teach that Christ is God and man.”[3]

            Eusebius also mentioned several of Melito’s writings which were influential in his day, including an apology to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and a letter on the canon of the books of the Old Testament.

            Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, also mentions Melito and his death, which seems to be around the year 190. According to Eusebius, Polycrates described Melito as “the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit.”[4]

            As the centuries rolled by, few people took notice of this important bishop. That is, until the twentieth century, when some discoveries of a homily by Melito stirred some scholars’ attention. The first discovery was made in 1932 by Frederic Kenyon, who found portions of the then anonymous homily inside a fifth-century codex. The identification was made in 1940, when Campbell Bonner located six papyri leaves in the University of Michigan which belonged to the same codex. A couple of decades later, an almost complete Greek copy of the same homily was found. Three decades later, this was followed by a copy in Coptic. Most scholars date the homily around AD 160-170.

Paschal Homily

Melito began his homily after reading Exodus 12 to his congregation – possibly during a celebration of the Paschal week (which, at that time, was kept as a single celebration). “Therefore, well-beloved,” he said, “understand how the mystery of the Pascha is both new and old, eternal and provisional.”[5]

            According to Fr. John Behr (editor of the Popular Patristic Series, where we find the best translation of Peri Pascha), the homily, broken into lines as a poem, should be read out loud – the way it was heard by its early listeners. Only then can the reader fully enjoy its musical, poetic, and dramatic qualities.

            Melito’s images are creative and effective. For example, the people of Egypt reacting to the death of their first-born children, are presented as a mother “stricken with woe, not outwardly only but inwardly. Not only were her garments torn, but also her delicate breasts.”[6] But the image is not complete. As this wailing mass of people surround Pharaoh, he becomes “clad in all Egypt like a tunic of grief.”[7]

            Melito’s poetry reaches exceptional peaks in his choice of words: “In the palpable darkness hid untouchable death, and the wretched Egyptians were grasping the darkness, while death sought out and grasped the Egyptian first-born at the angel’s command.”[8]

            He recounts with dramatic tones the confusion and desperation of the first-born who were powerless against the angel of death – one hopelessly trying to deceive death, another frantically grasping the darkness around him and holding onto an empty flicker of hope:

 

Whom does my hand hold?

Whom does my soul dread?

Who is the dark one enfolding my whole body?

If it is a father, help me.

If it is a mother, comfort me.

If it is a brother, speak to me.

If it is a friend, support me.

If it is an enemy, depart from me,

for I am a first-born.[9]

 

            The result is heart-wrenching. We instinctively cringe at the anguish of a people who have no savior. But the Israelites are safe, and Melito asks why:

Tell me angel, what turned you away?

The slaughter of the sheep or the life of the Lord?

The death of the sheep or the type of the Lord?

The blood of the sheep or the spirit of the Lord?[10]

            It’s obvious, he concludes, that it was not the death of the sheep. “It is clear that you turned away seeing the mystery of the Lord in the sheep, and the life of the Lord in the slaughter of the sheep, and the type of the Lord in the death of the sheep.”[11]

Typology

And here Melito starts his explanation of the typology we find in Scriptures. In fact, his is the first extensive treatment of this doctrine. What happened in the Old Testament, he says, was a type of things to come, “a sketch ... of what is to be,”[12] most specifically of Christ,

            “So the type was valuable in advance of the reality, and the illustration was wonderful before its elucidation. So the people were valuable before the church arose, and the law was wonderful before the illumination of the Gospel. But when the church arose and the Gospel came to be, the type, depleted, gave up meaning to the truth: and the law, fulfilled, gave up meaning to the Gospel.”[13]

            Melito continues his homily with a grand tour from Genesis to the Resurrection, showing how mankind fell under the slavery of sin and how God provided a Savior. To this purpose, he mentions some of the types of Christ in the old Testament (Abel, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, and David), and quotes Moses, David, Jeremiah, and Isaiah as they prophesy “the mystery of the Pascha, who is Christ.”[14]

            He adds a word of condemnation for Israel who didn’t recognize Christ and delivered unto death the very Person who had been working for their salvation. This was meant as a way to bring the listeners to check their own hearts, as it is evident in his conclusion – an invitation from Christ to turn to Him:

So come all families of people,

adulterated with sin,

and receive forgiveness of sins.

For I am your freedom.

I am the Passover of salvation,

I am the lamb slaughtered for you,

I am your ransom,

I am your life,

I am your light,

I am your salvation,

I am your resurrection,

I am your King.

I shall raise you up by my right hand,

I will lead you to the heights of heaven,

there shall I show you the everlasting father.[15]

 

This is the commander,

this is the Lord,

this is he who rose from the dead,

this is he who sits at the right hand of the father,

he bears the father and is borne by him.

To him be the glory and the might for ever.

Amen.[16]

 

            Melito’s Peri Pascha (on Pascha) is one of the jewels we still gather from the preaching of the early church, and brings us closer to the brothers and sisters who rejoiced in the same gospel that still gives us life and encouragement.



[1] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV, 12:8

[2] Ibid., IV, 21:1

[3] Ibid., V, 28:5

[4] Ibid., V, 24:5

[5] Melito of Sardis, On Pascha, With the Fragments of Melito and Other Material Related to the Quartodecimans, 2, Translated and edited by Alistair Stewart-Sykes, 2, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001, http://sachurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/On-Pascha-Melito-of-Sardi...

[6] Ibid., 18

[7] Ibid., 19

[8] Ibid., 23

[9] Ibid., 24

[10] Ibid., 32

[11] Ibid., 33

[12] Ibid., 36

[13] Ibid., 41-42

[14] Ibid., 65

[15] Ibid., 103

[16] Ibid., 105

 

Simonetta Carr

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