If you followed my advice yesterday and read Melito’s excellent sermon on Easter, you will have found yourself facing things that make today’s Christian uneasy. They make us uneasy living in a world after the Holocaust, after various attempts in different mediaeval nations to expel the Jewish people. They make us uneasy in a world where violent men grab, twist, misuse, and misread words to bring about violence, hatred, and destruction.
Melito says, ‘He is the one who was slain. And where was he slain? In the midst of Jerusaelm. By whom? By Israel.’ From here, he launches into a discussion of the culpability of Israel in the crucifixion of Christ. He launches into his high rhetoric, with various series of parallel clauses (with which the entire sermon is rife):
It was necessary that he suffer, but not at your hands.
It was necessary that he be treated with dishonour, but not at your hands.
It was necessary that he be judged, but not at your hands.
It was necessary that he be hanged, but not by you and your right hand.
Melito sees here the sorrowful reality that the people of Israel, whose Messiah Jesus is, are the very people who rejected him and dragged him before a Roman tribunal, crying for his blood. ‘And,’ Melito says to Israel, ‘you bound his beautiful hands which had fashioned you from the earth.’ He betrays here a high Christology (of note to me), but also brings home the willingness of the Jewish nation in the death of the Messiah.
He goes on to say what they should have been doing — that is, saving Jesus, since he is their King and Messiah. All of this will probably make a lot of people uneasy. So far, I’m not especially uneasy. It is true that the leaders of the Jewish people and a large mob thereof took Jesus before Pilate, and that Pilate at their insistence crucified him. The Romans are to blame as much as the Jewish people. But the people of Israel who participated in and condoned the crucifixion were as much in the wrong as the soldiers who hammered in the spikes.
Where it gets more uncomfortable, in fact, is here:
You have abandoned the Lord — You were not found by him.
You did not receive the Lord — You did not find mercy from him.
You dashed the Lord to the ground — You were dashed to the ground.
Melito in fact says more in the middle of his address to Israel, displaying the fact that they had killed their Lord, that ‘The King of Israel has been killed by Israel’s right hand.’
We must allow ourselves to find this passage contra Israel unsettling. But we cannot toss Melito aside. I tire of conversations where I mention John Chrysostom, and the other person inevitably mentions his sermons against the Jews and thereby condemns dear Goldenmouth. We need to look at these things and come to grips with them in their own context; we also need to see the beauty in Melito and Chrysostom that has nothing to do with the Jewish nation.
First, let us recall the dates: c. 165/190. The Christian movement is still weak and relatively small. They are living through some of the earliest systematic persecutions of the Roman Empire. The Nazarenes (as the Jewish Eigtheen Benedictions refer to them) have been divided from the Jewish religion for maybe 100 years.
The Jewish nation has been scattered, first in AD 70, then in the 130s. They are everywhere the Christians are; but they are the older brother. They also have rights within the Roman world; although odd in Roman eyes, Judaism is at least an ancient, national religion. Unlike Christianity.
Christianity has no protections and in this period is often considered by the Romans as a dangerous group that meets illegally to commit incest and eat babies. In other words, at this second-century moment, Christians are the weaker group.
When Melito is preaching, he is using various rhetorical devices, including addressing persons not there. Israel is not in his local church. This address is sometimes used by patristic preachers to address characters in the biblical text. I do not know if, when he addresses Israel Melito means Israel 100-some years ago or Israel of his day, but the former is not an impossibility.
Furthermore, he is not preaching to incite hatred or violence. Nowhere in the text of On the Pasch does Melito encourage hatred of the people of Israel. It is, rather, a stratagem to stir up the wonder of the audience at what went on in the Passion. Yes, the immortal dies at the hands of mortals. But not only that — the King of Israel is slain by Israel! This is a shocking moment. Should we not be shocked by what goes on at Golgotha?
Perhaps today Melito’s sermon would be inappropriate. But he did not live now. Allow his words to shock you. Allow them to enable you to see the horror of what the entire human race did on Good Friday. And then move on beyond his address of the Jewish people, to the beauty of this:
So come, all you clans of humankind, mingled with sin, and receive forgiveness for your sinful deeds.
For I am your forgiveness.
I am the pasch of salvation.
I am the lamb who was slain for you.
I am your ransom.
I am your life.
I am your light.
I am your salvation.
I am your king.
I will raise you up with my right hand.
I am bringing you up to the heights of heaven.
There I will show you the eternal Father.