‘It is I,’ says the Christ—An Ancient Easter Meditation

04.04.2021 | Catherine Gines Taylor

A long time ago, in the second century AD, there was a Christian bishop named Melito. He lived in the ancient city of Sardis, just east of cities like Smyrna and Ephesus. This city was heavily influenced by Hellenic culture and religion and had been part of the Roman empire since 129 B.C.

Roman-style chamber tomb, back wall with a monogram Chi-Rho (Greek letters for Christos) flanked by Alpha and Omega in a palm wreath surrounded by a field of flowers. c. 300-499, Sardis, Turkey. Image: Index of Medieval Art.

Sardis was addressed in Revelation 3:1-6 by the words of the Lord. The seer of Revelation uses the stark image of death to call the believers in Sardis to revive from their sleeping spiritual state:

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:
“I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.
Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God.
Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.
Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.
If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels.
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
(Rev. 3:1-6, NRSV)

Sardis was also home to a large community of Jews who celebrated the Passover at the same time as Quartodeciman Christians celebrated the Pasch, meaning on the fourteenth day of Nisan. Melito was Jewish by birth but embraced Christianity and lived among Christians whose practice was oriented toward Jewish influences. In his writing, Melito uses both Old and New Testament tropes to associate Israel’s deliverance from Egypt with the rescue by the firstborn of the Father, the blood of the Lamb of God. He likewise and unequivocally proclaims the voice of Jesus Christ through the salvific words of the Patriarchs. Melito was also deeply influenced by Johannine Christianity and used the lens of “God made flesh” (Jn. 1:1) to describe Jesus in messianic ways. He educated his audience in their devotion with his imperative interpretation of scripture and calls them to see the fulfillment of all mystery in Christ:

Therefore, well-beloved, understand,
how the mystery of the Pascha
is both new and old,
eternal and provisional,
perishable and imperishable,
mortal and immortal.

It is old with respect to the law, new with respect to the word.
Provisional with respect to the type,
yet everlasting through grace.
It is perishable because of the slaughter of the sheep,
imperishable because of the life of the Lord.
It is mortal because of the burial in the ground,
immortal because of the resurrection from the dead.
(On Pascha, 2-3) [1]

By way of his classical education, Melito was versed in rhetoric and knew how to utilize poetic style and argument to evoke images, persuasion, and emotion in his audience. Scholars have called Melito’s style of writing “hymnic prose” [2] and have associated his beautiful homilies with specific religious festivals. For example, On Pascha was written for the Easter season as a liturgical document. It was preached in association with the practices of fasting, keeping vigil in anticipation of Christ’s final return or the aphikomenos (the coming one), and celebrating the triumph of the risen Jesus after participating in a communal meal and singing hymns. [3]

At this Eastertide, I invite you to imagine our fellow Christians of Melito’s day. These faithful women and men were those awake in Christ, they kept night vigils, often in domestic spaces and sometimes in places of burial. To celebrate the Pasch on 14 Nisan meant that their festivities were lit by the full moon and by small lamps, not unlike this terracotta one with a rosette cross from the region near Ephesus. These ancient Christians brought material and ephemeral light and hope into their homes and households.

Pottery lamp with a rosette cross and filling holes, c. 500, Ephesus, Turkey. Image: British Museum Website.

Alistair Stewart describes the spiritual gathering: “On Pascha is itself the text of the liturgy, the means by which the Christians of Sardis, gathered with Melito their bishop, might commemorate and know the presence of Jesus in his triumph.” [4] I like to think that these Christians were answering the call to “Awake” in the Revelator’s words and that they found great communion with each other and in the spirit as they watched through the night.

Consider hearing Melito’s words for yourself as he poetically describes the risen Lord announcing his own triumph in an unrivaled appearance and declaration:

The Lord clothed himself with humanity,
and with suffering on behalf of the suffering one,
and bound on behalf of the one constrained,
and judged on behalf of the one convicted,
and buried on behalf of the one entombed,
he rose from the dead and cried aloud:

“Who takes issue with me? Let him stand before me.
I set free the condemned.
I gave life to the dead.
I raised up the entombed,
Who will contradict me?”

“It is I,” says the Christ,
“I am he who destroys death,
And triumphs over the enemy,
And crushes Hades,
And bears humanity off to the heavenly heights.”
“It is I,” says the Christ.

“So come all families of people,
adulterated with sin,
and receive forgiveness of sins.
For I am your freedom,
I am the Passover of salvation,
I am the lamb slaughtered for you,
I am your ransom,
I am your life,
I am your light,
I am your salvation,
I am your resurrection,
I am your King.
I shall raise you up by my right hand,
I will lead you to the heights of heaven,
there shall I show you the everlasting Father.”

He it is who made the heaven and the earth,
and formed humanity in the beginning,
who was proclaimed through the law and the prophets,
who took flesh from a virgin,
who was hung on a tree,
who was buried in earth,
who was raised from the dead,
and ascended to the heights of heaven,
who sits at the right hand of the Father,
who has the power to save all things,
through whom the Father acted from the beginning and for ever.

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 for ever.
Amen.
(On Pascha, 100-105) [5]

May your Easter be filled with light in the darkness and the boldly tender assurance of Jesus Christ—that none can rival him. Who can take issue with him? He “formed humanity from the earth and shared his own breath.” [6] He will give eternal breath again to all mankind for he “slew the manslayer death.” [7]

Who indeed can wake us from our sleep; who can accomplish this salvation?

“It is I,” says the Christ.

 

NOTES

[1] Melito of Sardis, On Pascha, trans. Alistair C. Stewart, Melito of Sardis: On Pascha (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016), 50-51.

[2] Stewart, Melito of Sardis, 14.

[3] Stewart, Melito of Sardis, 28-32.

[4] Stewart, Melito of Sardis, 32.

[5]Stewart, Melito of Sardis, 81-83.

[6]Melito of Sardis, On Pascha 47 in Stewart, Melito of Sardis, 64.

[7]Melito of Sardis, On Pascha 66 in Stewart, Melito of Sardis, 70.