Melito’s poetry reaches exceptional peaks in his choice of words: “In the palpable darkness hid untouchable death, and the wretched Egyptians were grasping the darkness, while death sought out and grasped the Egyptian first-born at the angel’s command.” He recounts with dramatic tones the confusion and desperation of the first-born who were powerless against the angel of death – one hopelessly trying to deceive death, another frantically grasping the darkness around him and holding onto an empty flicker of hope.
Melito is not a familiar name today. Until the last century, we could only find a mention of him in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, mostly in connection with the controversy over the day in which the feast of Pascha (Easter) was to be celebrated.
Eusebius tells us that Melito was a “bishop of the church of Sardis, and a man well known at that time.” He lists him among Christian writers who flourished in those days and who passed on to new generations “the sound and orthodox faith received from apostolic tradition.” He paired him with Irenaeus and “others which teach that Christ is God and man.”
Eusebius also mentioned several of Melito’s writings which were influential in his day, including an apology to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and a letter on the canon of the books of the Old Testament.
Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, also mentions Melito and his death, which seems to be around the year 190. According to Eusebius, Polycrates described Melito as “the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit.”
As the centuries rolled by, few people took notice of this important bishop. That is, until the twentieth century, when some discoveries of a homily by Melito stirred some scholars’ attention. The first discovery was made in 1932 by Frederic Kenyon, who found portions of the then anonymous homily inside a fifth-century codex. The identification was made in 1940, when Campbell Bonner located six papyri leaves in the University of Michigan which belonged to the same codex. A couple of decades later, an almost complete Greek copy of the same homily was found. Three decades later, this was followed by a copy in Coptic. Most scholars date the homily around AD 160-170.
Melito began his homily after reading Exodus 12 to his congregation – possibly during a celebration of the Paschal week (which, at that time, was kept as a single celebration). “Therefore, well-beloved,” he said, “understand how the mystery of the Pascha is both new and old, eternal and provisional.”
According to Fr. John Behr (editor of the Popular Patristic Series, where we find the best translation of Peri Pascha), the homily, broken into lines as a poem, should be read out loud – the way it was heard by its early listeners. Only then can the reader fully enjoy its musical, poetic, and dramatic qualities.
Melito’s images are creative and effective. For example, the people of Egypt reacting to the death of their first-born children, are presented as a mother “stricken with woe, not outwardly only but inwardly. Not only were her garments torn, but also her delicate breasts.” But the image is not complete. As this wailing mass of people surround Pharaoh, he becomes “clad in all Egypt like a tunic of grief.”