Just as the images from a powerful telescope or from a spacecraft orbiting the earth can give us fleeting glimpses of God’s creation that exists beyond our planet, when we look back in history, we have fleeting glimpses of what life was like for Christians in the first several centuries and of those courageous leaders who guided others to faith in Christ during that time. We have only a small “glimpse” at one who was a saint of the Church – St. Melito, Bishop of Sardis – but the few facts we have are enough to give us an intriguing view of the issues which were of important to Christians in that age.
Only one work of St. Melito’s has been pieced together in modern times from several fragments: his On Pascha, a work which scholars believe is a liturgical document for the combined observance of Good Friday and Easter.
In addition to On Pascha, another source of information about St. Melito is the Ecclesiastical History of the Church historian, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who lived from around 260 to 340. In his History, Eusebius mentions numerous writings of Melito which are now lost, but he quotes a letter from Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus to Bishop Victor of Rome which reveals some facts. Eusebius also quotes a letter which Bishop Melito himself wrote to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Melito is also mentioned in the writings of Hippolytus (170-235) and of St. Jerome (347-420). All these glimpses of St. Melito help us to form a picture of a man of God who led his people faithfully in the formative years of the Christian Church.
We know that St. Melito lived in the latter half of the second century and that he was bishop of the city of Sardis, in modern-day Turkey. With other Church leaders in that part of Asia (such as St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna from c. 69-155), Melito claimed to follow the practice of St. John the Evangelist (whose home had been in Ephesus, about 50 miles from Sardis) in dating the celebration of Pascha according to the Jewish celebration of Passover on the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month Nissan. Because of this practice, they were called “quortodecimans”.
It is believed that St. Melito was Jewish by birth. It would have been natural for Jewish Christians to adapt their rituals to those of the Jewish tradition, particularly those surrounding the Passion and Resurrection of Christ as described in the Gospel of St. John. Unlike the other Gospels, the fourth Gospel places the Crucifixion on the preparation day for Passover, the day when the lambs were sacrificed, as Christ was the “Lamb of God.”
This difference in the Gospel stories led to a divergence of practice among Christian communities. Those congregations which were made up of Gentile converts would have had no reason to adopt Jewish practices. In fact, the first council of bishops, the Council in Jerusalem held by the Apostles to decide this very issue, came to the decision that Gentiles did not have to become Jews (particularly through circumcision) to be Christians. The report of the Resurrection on Sunday was of greater importance to most Christians, and this day of the Resurrection became the norm for celebrating not only Pascha but the primary day of worship every week. This practice was attributed to the Apostles Peter and Paul.
For many years, the divergence in practice did not appear to be a problem. St. Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202) wrote that St. Polycarp visited St. Anicetus, who was the bishop (Pope) of Rome from around 153-168. Much of their discussion centered on the two different datings of Easter. Neither could persuade the other to change their position on this issue but their different practices did not cause a break in communion. In fact, Polycarp celebrated the Liturgy with the pope and they parted as brother bishops of the Church who simply observed different customs.
But by the end of the 2nd century, the desire for unity of practice regarding this most important celebration in the Christian calendar was growing. There were local synods which condemned the practice of keeping the connection with the Jewish Passover and the issue was finally resolved at the first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea, in 325. The decision of that Council was that Pascha would be celebrated by all Christians on the Sunday following the fourteenth day of Nissan. Discussion also centered on the desire to compute which month would properly be Nissan for Christians – one in which Pascha would always fall after the Spring equinox – rather than to rely on Jewish computations.
This controversy was still alive in some fashion in the north of England, when the Synod of Whitby was convened in 664 to reconcile two divergent practices regarding the date of Easter. Although the Celtic Christians celebrated Pascha on Sunday, they claimed that their tradition came from St. John the Evangelist, but the decision of the Synod was to follow the practice of Orthodox Christianity and date Pascha by the rules set down at Nicaea.
Although St. Melito and his fellow bishops were in disfavor for some time because of this controversy, his holiness was eventually recognized by the Church and he is now revered as a saint. He is remembered for being the first to establish the canon of Hebrew scriptures for Christians, giving it the name “Old Testament”. It is said that, in some of the writings now lost, St. Melito went to great lengths to show parallels between the Old Covenant and the New, to show how the predictions of the prophets are fulfilled in Christ, and to show the “typology” of events in the Old Testament which “prefigure” those of the New Testament.
St. Melito described himself as a “eunuch” but this is understood not in the sense of physical castration but as one who is living a celibate life in order to give his whole attention to caring for his flock. This celibate life would eventually become the norm for all bishops.
In On Pascha, St. Melito appears to be very hostile to the Jews. As a Jew himself, he may have felt great frustration and disappointment that so many other Jews had not believed that Jesus was the Messiah. He also places much blame on the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion, declaring that, if the Jewish leaders had not brought the matter before the Roman authorities, it would not have happened. Now, when we hear the story of the Passion sung in Holy Week, we identify with the Jews. It is us who turn on Christ and betray Him.
In writing a plea on behalf of the Christians to the Emperor, St. Melito followed in the footsteps of St. Justin, the Martyr (100-165) who wrote to the Emperor Antonius with an “apology” for the Christian life. According to Melito, Christians were suffering “lawless plundering by the mob” and the bishop had hoped for imperial protection which, of course, was not granted.
In these glimpses of a bishop who lived in the formative years of the Church, we are given a picture of one who was faithful to the apostolic tradition which he had inherited and who was charitable in presenting this tradition to those who held to a different one. We see a bishop who was intent on protecting his people from persecution and who cared for his flock through his teaching, writing, and liturgical celebrations. We see one who gave his whole life to serving the Messiah who had come to save the world through his death and Resurrection. May St. Melito of Sardis pray for us.
From the conclusion of On Pascha:
This is the alpha and omega,
this is the beginning and the end,
the ineffable beginning and the incomprehensible end.
This is the Christ,
this is the king,
this is Jesus,
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 forever.
Sources: On Pascha by Melito of Sardis – translated, introduced, and annotated by Alistair Stewart-Sykes; The Prologue From Ochrid by St. Nikolai of Ochrid; on line articles from The Catholic Encyclopedia and Wikipedia