St. Melito of Sardis is a Father worth getting to know during Holy Week. It’s a particular privilege of our time that we can get to know him. Most of his words were lost for most of Christian history. Only in the mid-twentieth century was an almost-complete text of Melito found. The rediscovered text was titled Peri Pascha — which means both “On Passover” and “On Easter,” since in the ancient languages both holidays share the same name. Melito shows us the Old Testament foreshadowing of the Christian Easter in Israel’s exodus from Egypt.
Preached around 175 A.D., Peri Pascha is the work of a man steeped in the history of Israel. Some modern readers have misunderstood and condemned Melito as anti-Jewish. One scholar I revere even referred to him as the “first poet of deicide.” But surely these accusations would have stunned and horrified Melito himself. For it is likely that he was himself a convert from Judaism. He was, in any event, a profound student of the Hebrew Scriptures, and even traveled to Palestine to study them on their home turf.
He lived in a time when rabbinic Judaism and nascent Christianity presented two different, newly emerging responses to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. It was a time of crisis. Both the ancient rabbis and the Church Fathers saw their respective traditions as a continuation of the tradition and history of Israel. Both the rabbis and the Fathers recognized that the old order was giving way to something new. Where Christians and Jews differed was on the nature and form of the new order.
Judge for yourself. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, numbers 128 and 130 (online here). Then go on to read Melito’s Peri Pascha. You might also read Todd Russell Hanneken’s provocative essay “A Completely Different Reading of Melito’s Peri Pascha.”