In the Company of the Fathers: Melito of Sardis

In the Company of the Fathers: Melito of Sardis

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The narrative of Christian scripture trades on paradoxes, those self-contradictory statements that nevertheless turn out to be true. “Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground.” “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” “The slave is freed in the Lord, while the free is Christ’s slave,” says Paul; “the virgin shall be with child,” says the prophet; “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” says Jesus. But of all the paradoxes of the Christian story, none is more central, or more profound, than that which is remembered today—the Son of God put to death on a cross.

And Christians call this day “good.”

Two millennia after the event, the astonishing oddity of this title is lost on most Christians. We have heard and rehearsed the story so many times that the brutal execution of the hoped for Messiah no longer shocks us. We have simply become accustomed to the notion that his suffering and death is a good thing.

The Fathers had no such accustoming. In fact, in the second century, idea that the Son of God could die was still scandalous, as evidenced by the various Gnostic groups who flatly denied the claim. In their telling of the story, Jesus mystically changes places in the final moments with Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried his cross to Golgotha, and he stands nearby laughing at the centurions who unknowingly nail Simon to the cross. While to our ears this story is ridiculous, to many ancients it made more sense than a God who could die.

Still, most early Christians could not accept this Gnostic view as a faithful reading of the crucifixion accounts. Thus, they were left with the stark fact that the one they worshipped had been put to death on a cross and, more troubling still, that it was their sin that put him there. So they turned to other parts of the scriptural narrative to try to make sense of this most paradoxical moment. They found their answer in the story of the Passover Lamb.

A particularly compelling account of the connection between Christ and the Passover Lamb comes from the second century figure Melito, a Jewish convert to Christianity from Asia Minor who served as bishop of the ancient Christian church of Sardis. As was the custom in Asia Minor, on the day before Easter—called Pascha (Greek from the Hebrew word Pesah for Passover)—Christians held a vigil fast, which was broken at midnight by the bishop’s sermon. Melito used the occasion to speak of the meaning of Christ’s death and he did so with Pascha imagery:

“This is the lamb slain,
this is the speechless lamb,
this is the one born of Mary the fair ewe,
this is the one taken from the flock,
and led to slaughter.

O strange and ineffable mystery!
The slaughter of the sheep was Israel’s salvation,
And the death of the sheep was life for the people,
And the blood averted the angel.”

Identifying Christ with the Passover lamb allowed Melito, unlike his Gnostic contemporaries, to fully embrace the reality of Christ’s death. Indeed, he dwelled on it, remaining in its harshness, refusing to move quickly past it to resurrection, as modern Christians always do. Instead, he lets the reality settle with his people. “God has been murdered,” is his repeated refrain. He dwells here because the interpretive possibility opened by the intertextual connection to the Pascha allows Christ’s death itself to be good. For in the same manner that the blood of the lamb smeared over the doors of the Israelites caused the Angel of Death to pass over their houses and spare their firstborns, so the death of Christ produces life for all who believe, all who are covered in the Son’s blood. It is not a logical truth, but a poetic one: “O strange and ineffable mystery.”

The connection between Christ and the Passover lamb is, of course, not Melito’s innovation. Paul called Jesus the “Paschal Lamb who has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7) and each Gospel draws on the significance of the crucifixion happening during the celebration of the Jewish Passover. Nor is the interpretive practice of finding Christ throughout the Jewish story particularly new. I’ve already shown in this series that earlier Christians had found Christ wherever God was revealed. Primarily, this meant the theophanies such as the burning bush or the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the wilderness.

It is precisely here, however, where Melito makes an important innovation. Unlike previous writers, Melito identifies not just Christ, but the death of Christ, as the interpretive key for understanding the nature of God’s salvific work throughout the entirety of the scriptural story. Put differently, where Melito sees Christ in Israel’s story, it is always in suffering:

“This is the Pascha of our salvation:
this is the one who in many people endured many things.
This is the one who was murdered in Abel,
tied up in Isaac,
exiled in Jacob,
sold in Joseph,
exposed in Moses,
slaughtered in the lamb,
hunted down in David,
dishonored in the prophets.”

Melito shows us that the nature of God’s salvific work is defined by suffering. Thus, the Son of God’s death on the cross is not an anomaly, something that deviates from God’s normal way of acting. Nor is it something that tragically happened to Jesus and could have been otherwise. Rather, the Son’s death on the cross expresses the very heart of God and reveals the paradox at the center of the scriptural narrative: God saves through death. So it is that Christ “was lifted up from the earth” on a cross (John 12:32). So it is that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:9).

And so it is that we call this day “good.”

Read the rest of the series, In the Company of the Fathers.


One Response

  1. Jackson, great article – I enjoy reading your take on “Fathers” of the Church that I am not familiar with… I’ve never thought about the DEATH of Christ being scandalous, but now I can see where, when that concept was first taught, that it would be shocking. These Church Fathers helped give their students tools to understand the meaning, and brought Jesus to the human level.

    Great insights!
    Thanks for your writing.

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