Today is the feast day of The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Orate pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
In the time of Constantine the Great, the city of Sebaste was witness of a magnificent spectacle of Christian heroism, in the forty soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the Faith of Christ. Licinius, to whom Constantine had entrusted the government of a portion of the empire, was at first very friendly to the Christians, but afterwards played the part of a cruel tyrant towards them. He issued an edict to all the prefects to force the Christians to adore the pagan gods, and, in case of their refusal, to condemn them to death. Agricola, Governor of Armenia, published the imperial mandate and summoned the Christians before, him. The first to answer this summons were forty brave soldiers of the garrison of Sebaste. They openly proclaimed themselves followers of Christ and ready to suffer tortures, and even death, rather than deny their faith. Lysias, their general, endeavored by praising their former bravery, by promising them imperial favors and rewards, and finally by threatening them with an ignominious death, to turn them from their holy purpose of remaining disciples of the Crucified. The Christian heroes, however, fearlessly declared, that in a case where the honor of the King of kings and their own eternal welfare were at stake, they disregarded promises and threats, and scorned the favor or displeasure of the Emperor.
The Governor, provoked to anger, ordered the holy confessors to be bound with chains and cast into dungeons. He called them again and again before his tribunal, but, finding them always firm in their faith, inflicted cruel tortures on them and sent them back, to prison. During their confinement, they exhorted each other to perseverance with these words: “We have borne so many hardships, so often exposed our lives in the service of an earthly sovereign, and in defence of our country: shall we do less for the King of Heaven and in behalf of our own souls?” In this manner they encouraged each other, and begged of the Lord that He would strengthen them in their impending martyrdom. They employed a portion of their time in singing the Divine praises. Our Saviour did not fail to assist and console His servants. In a vision, He addressed them in these terms: “The beginning is good, but he only who perseveres to the end will be saved.” Shortly after this, sentence was pronounced on the forty martyrs, and immediately carried out.
They were first struck on the mouth with stones, and at nightfall conducted, in the middle of winter, to a frozen lake. They were condemned to sit there, naked, until death should put an end to their sufferings. There was also a hot bath in readiness, at a neighboring house, for those who should chance to go over to the service of the idols.
As soon as the Christian soldiers reached the lake, they took off their clothes and went out on the ice. Here they continued their praises of God, earnestly asking for the Divine assistance. “We are forty going on the ice,” said they, “grant, O merciful Lord, that forty also may be crowned, and that none lose his crown. It is a favored number, which Thou hast ennobled by Thy holy fast. Elias sought and found God by a fast of forty, days.” Near the martyrs were stationed the guards to watch that no one should escape. Some hours had already passed; the heroes still persevered in glorifying God by their chants, and continued to offer supplications to the throne of the Most High: the guards, however, had fallen asleep: the prison-keeper alone was watching. He suddenly beheld the martyrs environed by a shining light, and angels descending from heaven with magnificent crowns in their hands, which they placed on the heads of the soldiers. He remarked, however, that only thirty-nine were crowned. He said to himself: “There are forty Christians on the lake; where is the crown of the other one?” The mystery was soon solved. One of the number, unable to endure the cold any longer, had crawled to the bath, and by this act, denied his faith. But God did not suffer this inconstancy to go unpunished, for the wretch died soon after entering the bath, losing his life and precipitating himself into the flames of hell; thus, by seeking to escape short sufferings, he also forfeited the heavenly reward due to perseverance. The thirty-nine were much grieved at this desertion, but they were gladdened by seeing the prison-keeper himself filling up their number again. For, reflecting on what he had just witnessed, he concluded that the faith of the Christians must be the only true one. Awaking the guards, he related to them his vision, and cried out, in a loud voice: “I also am a Christian, and will live and die with the Christians.” He stripped off his garments, and, joining the martyrs on the, lake, begged them to petition the Lord to bestow a similar crown on him. Their prayer was heard, for an angel I came down from heaven with the crown.
At the break of day, everything that had occurred in the! night was reported to the Governor. He immediately ordered the forty martyrs to be drawn out of the lake, their limbs to be broken with clubs, and the bodies to be thrown into the fire. The icy water had deprived all of life, with the exception of one, who, being younger, was possessed of greater power of endurance. The name of this one was Melitho. His mother, seeing him still alive, said to him: “Persevere only a little longer, my child; Jesus is standing at the gate of heaven, hastening to your assistance.” In the mean while, the bodies of the other confessors had been thrown into a cart and were carried to the burning pile. The mother, perceiving that her son was left behind, in the hope of bringing him over to the worship of the idols, took him on her shoulders, in order to place him on the cart or on the pile. Whilst carrying him, she encouraged and exhorted him to persevere by considerations on the shortness of life and the eternity of the reward. The courageous youth, whilst listening to the words of his mother, gave up the ghost. The pious mother, however, completed her task, and laid the corpse with those of the other martyrs, that he might be united, even in death, with his companions. St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and many other holy fathers, delivered sermons, full of instruction and unction, on these holy martyrs.(1)
Reflecting on these martyrs, St. Basil wrote:
“O sacred troop! O glorious company! O invincible battalion! Flowers of the Church, yes I repeat, human flowers! Stars that shine among the stars! Martyrs worthy of the praise of all the centuries! To you the doors of Paradise were opened, and from the palaces of Heaven the Angels, Prophets, Patriarchs and all Saints came out to witness your triumphal arrival. A sight worthy of the Angelic Army! Forty warriors in the very flower of their youth who have disdained this life, who have loved the Lord above parents, children, wives and relatives. They disregarded this temporal life that they might glorify God in their members .…
“Having raised up the trophy of their victory against Hell, each one received a crown from the hand of Christ Jesus Our Lord, to Whom be glory and dominion to the ages of ages.” (6)
The Christians, however, collected the precious remains, and the relics were distributed throught many cities; in this way the veneration paid to the Forty Martyrs became widespread, and numerous churches were erected in their honour.
One of them was built at Caesarea, in Cappadocia, and it was in this church that St. Basil publicly delivered his homily. St. Gregory of Nyssa was a special client of these holy martyrs. Two discourses in praise of them, preached by him in the church dedicated to them, are still preserved (P. G., XLVI, 749 sqq., 773 sqq.) and upon the death of his parents, he laid them to rest beside the relics of the confessors. St. Ephraem, the Syrian, has also eulogized the forty Martyrs (Hymni in SS. 40 martyres). Sozomen, who was an eye-witness, has left us (Hist. Eccl., IX, 2) an interesting account of the finding of the relics in Constantinople through the instrumentality of the Empress Pulcheria.
Special devotion to the forty martyrs of Sebaste was introduced at an early date into the West. St. Gaudentius, Bishop of Brescia in the beginning of the fifth century (d. about 410 or 427), received paticles of the ashes of martyrs during a voyage in the East, and placed them with other relics in the altar of the basilica which he had erected, at the consecration of which he delivered a discourse, still extant (P. L., XX, 959 sqq.) Near the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, in the Roman Forum, built in the fifth century, a chapel was found, built, like the church itself, on an ancient site, and consecrated to the Forty Martyrs. A picture, still preserved there, dating from the sixth or seventh century, depicts the scene of the martydom. The names of the confessors, as we find them also in later sources, were formerly inscribed on this fresco. Acts of these martyrs, written subsequently, in Greek, Syriac and Latin, are yet extant, also a “Testament” of the Forty Martyrs. (3)