St. Melito and Pascha – Hell Is Not the Last Word

Among the most powerful meditations on Pascha are the writings of Melito of Sardis (ca. 190 AD). His homily, 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. It 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.” [shades of Darth Vader…]

When translated into existential terms, we ourselves 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 often removed from the immediacy of their existence and instead live and move in the context of the virtual world. We create names and roles for ourselves in a land of meta-make-believe.

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 a strange comfort in the hope of ever-changing DNA, is just another form of the 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 in the accounts 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.” Before that experience, and many times since, I have been in various forms of that tomb, and sat alongside others who found themselves there as well.

Whatever we may say of hell or sheol, it reflects an experience that we already know. The alienation in the phrase, “I am the silence of death,” accompanies everything that severs our communion with God, the self, and others. If you have been there, and if someone brought you out, then you already know something of the joy of Pascha. That Christ can enter such a place (and that He already has) is itself the truly great miracle. God is so big. How can He become so small? God is life. How can He have died?

St. Paul wrote:

But if the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)

There is a “personal” Pascha within each of us, just as there is a personal hell. The hell seeks to tell us that it is our destiny. No matter its face, no matter its torment, hell is not the last word. Christ tramples down that false destiny and welcomes us to His new life.

Christ is risen!

 

Artwork: By Victor Vasnetsov

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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16 responses to “St. Melito and Pascha – Hell Is Not the Last Word”

  1. Kyriaki Avatar
    Kyriaki

    Glory to God!

  2. Patricia Avatar
    Patricia

    Indeed He is Risen!!!

  3. Adriana Avatar
    Adriana

    Indeed He is risen! Adevarat ca a Inviat!

    Thank you Father Stephen, the words and the painting are so powerful.
    In time I learned to value my passages through hell. They brought me to God.
    Hell is not a mirage. Is burdensome, arrogant, brash, loud, humiliating, aggressive, deadly… but all this goes away or becomes bearable only in God’s light. He is steadfast.

    In the painting, there is such a difference between those looking for God, who are almost ghost-like, and the angels, who are so radiant.
    Our entire life is an oscillation between these states. Patience to endure the first will bring out the latter.
    For ever.

  4. David Mansfield Avatar
    David Mansfield

    Thank you Father .
    Tears again from your wonderful writing. Meaninglessness is terrible as it leads to destructive behaviour,I’m so blessed to have got out of the abyss, Glory and praise to God .

  5. Hal Freeman Avatar
    Hal Freeman

    Thank you so much for that. Glory to God.

  6. Steve Taylor Avatar
    Steve Taylor

    Thank you.

  7. Alec Brooks Avatar
    Alec Brooks

    Thank you for this wonderful meditation!!

  8. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Thanks for this, Father. I have not sat in the tomb (or with others who are there) but this Pascha has been more revealing to me than those previous. I’ve had greater confrontations with my own sin–and, more importantly, God’s grace. I wonder that God brings me deeper into His Pascha, even though I feel I am only scraping the surface. Temptations have grown as well; spiritual more than physical. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are becoming more grounded as a reality as opposed to an idea. Please keep me in your prayers.

    Christ is Risen!

  9. Kieranna Kathleen Avatar

    Beautiful, full of hope, in the midst of incredibly challenging dark times for our world and for me. Thank you. Christ is risen!

  10. Steven Sinclair Avatar
    Steven Sinclair

    Greetings…My beloved step-father and mother-in-law reposed in Christ, one March 15 and the other March 27. Funerals in KY and FL. Families in great sadness, yet with hope at Pascha, for we are entrusting both to the mercy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Give glory to God alone for all things!

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Steven,
    May their memory be eternal! And may God comfort all those who grieve.

  12. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you
    Truly He is Risen!

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Steven, when my wife of 24 years reposed a few weeks before Pascha in 2008, I was deeply sad, without joy. On Pascha however the Holy Spirit filled my heart with Joy and I knew that she had been received by God’s Mercy. Even though I have a wonderful second marriage I still miss my first wife but I know she is fine.
    Christ is Risen!

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In High School the choir performed excerpts from Handel’s Messiah every year at Easter for the general public and the school. Our choir leader, Mr Jackson, was a believer and, in preparation, he made no bones about the reality of what and who we sang.
    It was singing some of the Choruses that I experienced the Holy Spirit for the first time.

    Behold the Lamb of God remains my favorite

  15. Jeff Avatar
    Jeff

    My wife and I and are enquirers to Orthodoxy. We went to the Paschal services (first time for my wife) last weekend. The priest has his retired priest father serving with him in the altar. During Matins (?), when different priests and deacons were coming in and out of the altar, they were swinging their scensors, shouting, ”Christ is risen” When we were discussing ther services the next day, my wife, who was greatly moved, said what stood out to her:
    “The look in Father Stephen’s eyes as he watched his dad shout, ”Christ is risen!” There was such joy in his face. Such a triumphant, victorious look. It’s like they were boasting, ‘Look what Christ has done!” ‘
    Not like anything else we have ever seen, and we are nearly 60, devout Christians since college.

  16. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    Indeed He is Risen! Glory to God for All Things!

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