I had the pleasure of reading St. Melito of Sardis’s On Pascha this Easter. It reminded me of the very few writings I have read of the Syrian fathers. What makes On Pascha and similar writings so enjoyable is the infusion of typology and allegory. These writers are poets and hymn-writers who simply sing the praises of the Lord. Their statements of theology are direct, mysterious, and can be seemingly paradoxical. They love to use (and I love to read!) striking contrasts, and abrupt transitions between their own voice and the voice of another.
St. Melito is also enjoyable to read because he is a pre-Nicene father. It is not uncommon to come across statements from the early Church fathers that are so foreign to our ears as to sound dubious if not downright heretical. Statements such as St. Gregory the Theologian’s “co-mingling” when speaking about the two natures of Christ or St. Hilary’s “two sources” regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. I think we sometimes underestimate how much we are formed in both East and West by Nicene and Chalcedonian approaches. In On Pascha 9 we read:
[Jesus] is father, in that he begets. He is son, in that he is begotten.
In the introduction accompanying this particular translation of On Pascha, Alistair Stewart-Sykes cites the above as evidence that for Melito “there is no real distinction between the Father and the Son.” (p. 29) From the information given in the introduction concerning Melito’s theology and from On Pascha itself I am not convinced this is necessarily the case.
When I first read that Jesus is father in that he begets, my first thought was that Melito was referring to the fact that in Jesus Christ we are made sons. Abraham is the type and Jesus is the reality; Abraham is only the father of a multitude in Jesus Christ, who is the true father of nations. Mr. Stewart-Sykes immediately addresses this, saying, “Although there has been an attempt to interpret this passage as referring to the sons whom Christ begets in salvation, thinking to rescue Melito from any imputation of heresy, elsewhere we hear that ‘he bears the father and is borne by him.'” (ibid.) But this statement does not necessarily bear the imprint of modalism either. Directly before this, Melito professes Jesus as being “He who sits at the right hand of the Father.” (On Pascha 105) How can Jesus sit at the righthand of Himself?
However, bringing into the discussion the assertion that Jesus bears the Father does shift what we are talking about. It is now a discussion of the relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity.
It should be noted at the start that bearing the Father is not the same as being the Father. In regards to bearing the Father, it is only natural that Melito would say this; it is impossible to speak of Christ being borne by the Father without also asserting that He bears the Father because God is One. Jesus Christ is the firstborn of creation; He is the One through Whom all was created and Who took created nature upon Himself in order to redeem it. This does not mean though that He, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is a creature. It is expressive of His having taken on true flesh and having primacy in everything. He possesses that primacy precisely because of His being the Uncreated One – God. In that He took our visible nature, however, “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Col 1:15 NAB) He is also “the refulgence of [the Father’s] glory” and “the very imprint of [the Father’s] being” (Heb 1:3) This is because He is of the Father Himself – God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. So He tells His apostles: “The Father and I are one,” (John 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me as seen the Father.” (14:9) In this it is perfectly right to say the Jesus bears the Father and is borne by the Father. And, in regards to our salvation, it is not only perfectly right to say that Jesus is father in that he begets, but proclaim with the prophet Isaiah that “a child is born for us, and a son is given to us,” and we name Him “Father-Forever.” (Is 9:5)