On Pascha – Melito of Sardis

Among the most powerful meditations on Pascha is found in the writings of Melito of Sardis (ca. 190 AD). His writing On Pascha is both a work of genius as poetry and a powerful work of theology. Its subject is the Lord’s Pascha – particularly as an interpretation of the Old Testament. His writing is a common example of early Church thought on Scripture and the Lord’s Pascha. I offer a short verse, a meditation reflecting on the first-born of Egypt, who die in the Old Testament Pascha. He speaks of the darkness of death, and the grasping of Hades:

If anyone grasped the darkness
he was pulled away by death.
And one of the first born,
grasping the material darkness in his hand,
as his life was stripped away,
cried out in distress and terror:
“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.
It it is an enemy, depart from me, for I am a first-born.”

Before the first-born fell silent, the long silence held
him and spoke to him:
“You are my first-born,
I am your destiny, the silence of death.”

The poetry is poignant – the words of death as horrifying as any ever spoken, “I am your destiny, the silence of death.”

When translated into existential terms, we become both the first-born of the Egyptians, and the first-born of Israel. As the first born of Egypt, we too often know our destiny, the silence of death. We know the emptiness of our lives and the hollow constructs of the ego. We know the silence of prayer – not the deep mystical silence of union with God – but the empty silence that hints that no one is listening.

Never before, it would seem to me, has the human race been more hungry for God’s true Pascha. In an over-abundance of experience, we declare ourselves to be the first-born of Egypt. We find ourselves in the grasp of a darkness we do not understand. Our lives are very often removed from the immediacy of their existence and instead live and move in the context of the digital world (whether of entertainment or other examples). We create names and roles for ourselves in make-believe worlds. Re-enactors become some imaginary personage on the weekend, enduring reality only for the benefits it creates within the imaginary world.

Many people indeed live lives of “quiet desperation” simply because they have no hope and cannot imagine where hope would begin. The siren song of modern scientists, who find some strange comfort in the hope of ever-changing DNA, is just another form of voice, “I am your destiny, the silence of death.” Those who stumble along with some vague hope in extra-terrestrial life (as though it would change the nature of our own existence) and the march of “progress” (the mere aggregation of technology) if they take time to notice will see again, the “silence of death.”

In our strange, modern world, some have made peace with this silence, the last blow of the secularist hammer on the fullness of the life of faith: better the grave than the resurrection.

St. Melito obviously offers an alternative view of the world. The Christ who “trampled down death by death,” the Lord of Pascha, is foreshadowed in the world (particularly the account of the Old Testament). The Christ proclaimed by St. Melito is the Christ who confronts death itself, including the meaninglessness that we know too well in our modern world. This Christ is God in the Flesh, who has condescended into the existence of man and grappled with the “destiny of the silence of death.” In the face of the death of His friend, Lazarus, Christ cries out, “Lazarus, come forth!” With that cry the Church’s observance of Holy Week begins.

This observance is not the mere recounting of history. The recounting of history (the stories of the Old Testament) has been taken up by Christ into a new and fulfilled existence. The call to Lazarus is now a call to all of humanity. The silence of death has been broken by the voice of the Son of God.

“The day is coming and now is, when those in the grave will hear the voice [of the Son of God] and come forth.”

Our “angel” has come to protect us from the devastation of the angel of death, the one who promises us only “the silence of death.” The Lamb has been slain and the Cross has been signed over our doorposts. We need not go quietly into the night.

On the night of Pascha, the priest stands before the closed doors of a darkened Church and cries, “Let God arise! Let His enemies be scattered! Let those who hate Him flee before His face!” It is the eternal cry of God over His creation. We were not created for death. We were not created for meaninglessness. We were not created for the empty imaginations of modern philosophers. We were created for God and He has come to save us!

Some years back I sat in the tomb of Lazarus. I sat and listened for an echo of the voice which shattered death. I did not hear it with my physical ears – but my heart was lifted up in hope. “All those in the graves will hear His voice.”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





9 responses to “On Pascha – Melito of Sardis”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo from inside the tomb of Lazarus. I cannot apologize for the darkness.

  2. Bill Avatar

    Amen. I would want to say also that resurrection, and nothing less, is so much more exciting than another modern alternative, the immortal soul going into some amorphous, disembodied “other” existence. Rather, in Revelation, we see heaven coming down to heal and transform the earth.

  3. Merry Avatar

    Wow. You capture and give us such timely, valuable, and insightful thoughts – once again. Last year was my first experience with Lazarus Saturday, Holy Week, and Pascha. It was one amazing wonder after another! I was crismated on Holy Saturday and will soon complete my first year as an Orthodox. It has been a journey, not a destination, as it is everchanging and yet still the same as it was begun. I am “home”, but continually discovering new “rooms”.
    At 63, I continue to find myself drawing closer and closer to Christ, thru each moment I spend in His presence. I never lose my child-like wonder at the all encompassing love I experience as I say the words and sing the hymns.
    Glory to God is indeed a good name for your blog! You continue to remind us how important that is in everything we do and say. Thank you

  4. Mark the Zealot Avatar
    Mark the Zealot

    Secularism wants to believe in a Church like Hazel Motes’ “where the blind stay blind, the lame stay lame, and them that’s dead stays that way.” Christ, however, comes to give us life, and gives it abunduntly.

  5. mike Avatar

    ……Beautiful rendition……..absolutely Beautiful…..

  6. NW Nikolai Avatar
    NW Nikolai

    Father bless, and thank-you!

    “Come Forth” echoes through the ages and is a present reality…

  7. Joseph Candito Avatar
    Joseph Candito

    Simply beautiful.

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