Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste (March 9)

Until fairly recently it was popular in Christian circles to identify oneself as a “soldier of Christ.” There was biblical precedent for the image. St Paul, for instance, told Timothy that he “…must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3). Catholics maintained various “knighthoods,” recalling the Middle Ages. Protestants even devised a “paramilitary” church, the Salvation Army with its popular theme song, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

While the Gospels offer negative images of soldiers whipping Christ and gambling for His clothes, they also show us soldiers in another light. We see soldiers listening to John the Baptist and asking him what they should do (cf., Luke 3:14). We hear of God-fearing soldiers, like the centurion in Capernaum who “loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5). And the first fruit of the Gospel among the Gentiles was an officer of the Italian Regiment stationed in Caesarea, Cornelius the Centurion (cf., Acts 10).

Perhaps because armies do see more of the world than many other people, Christian soldiers grew in number, even during the time of the Roman persecutions. They were often targeted by their anti-Christian superiors and many were martyred. Military martyrs like St George and Ss. Sergius and Bacchos, who suffered in Asia Minor during the great persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century, became models for other Christian soldiers in the East who saw themselves as, first of all, in the army of the Lord.

The Thundering Legion

In AD312 St Constantine the Great experienced his famous vision of the cross. The next year, as Emperor of the West, he issued an edict of religious toleration, thus ending the persecution of Christians in his realm. Licinius, as Emperor of the East, signed on, but kept a wary eye on the Christians he ruled. Licinius knew that, if he were to fight Constantine, the Christians would side with their protector. As the struggle for universal control intensified, Licinius began ordering the extermination of Christians.

Licinius was particularly wary of Christians in the army. They refused to offer the usual sacrifices to the Roman gods and were considered a threat to the traditional Roman social customs. There were a number of Christians – soldiers included – in Asia Minor where the Twelfth or “Thundering” Legion was stationed near Sebaste to protect the eastern border of the empire. In 320, when Licinius ordered a major persecution of Christians, forty soldiers from this unit refused to take part.

We learn what happened next from St Basil the Great who lived nearby only a few years after the soldiers’ ordeal. St Basil’s mother Emilia had erected a chapel at Ennesi, the family estate, to house their relics and their story was part of the family lore. According to St Basil, the legion commander and the local governor each tried to convince the soldiers to comply with the orders they had received. They were unsuccessful. Threats, torture and imprisonment followed but the men remained firm. Finally the unit was condemned to a slow but certain death.

The soldiers were ordered to march naked onto a frozen pond during a particularly bitter winter night. A warm bath was set up nearby to tempt the men to recant. Ignoring the urging of their guards, the forty encouraged each other to remain firm and not give way: they were soldiers of Christ.

The Victors Revealed

Frostbite and hypothermia began taking their toll, when one of the soldiers gave in and recanted. Then, Basil reports, the most remarkable thing happened. One of the guards had a vision of angels richly adorning the soldiers who had remained faithful to Christ. Overcome by the sight, he tore off his own clothes and joined his suffering comrades on the ice. St Ephrem the Syrian, commenting on the martyrs’ ordeal, likened this guard to St Matthias replacing Judas in the company of the apostles.

Some icons of these saints depict a woman seemingly helping one of the soldiers. St. Basil tells it this way. By morning most of the soldiers had succumbed to the bitter cold. The prefect ordered all the bodies to be taken away in wagons and be burned. One was found still alive and the guards set him aside, but, at a sign from him, his own mother hoisted him onto the cart alongside his dead comrades for their final journey.

Licinius’ fears were well founded. In four years Constantine defeated him, taking control of the whole empire. He was imprisoned and later hanged by order of Constantine.

What remained of the martyr’s relics were collected and enshrined at Emilia’s chapel. Emilia’s granddaughters gave a portion to the Bishop of Brescia in northern Italy who built a church in their honor. Relics were also sent to Constantinople as the fourth century historian Sozomen described.

The Forty Holy Martyrs are remembered for their steadfastness in trial. They came to be seen as personifying the words of Christ in the Gospel, “He who shall endure to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). Their endurance earned them remembrance in our liturgical services. In the mystery of Crowning bride and groom are blessed with these words: “Remember them, O Lord our God, as you remembered Your Holy Forty Martyrs, sending down upon them crowns from heaven.” The martyrs’ faithfulness to Christ was rewarded; the couple’s fidelity can expect a like reward.

As models of endurance the Forty Martyrs are the only saints commemorated on a weekday during the Great Fast, encouraging us to endure whatever hardships we may experience in this season.

“O martyrs of Christ, you have made the holy Fast resplendent by your glorious deeds. Being forty in number, you hallowed the forty days of the Fast, imitating the redeeming Passion through your sufferings for Christ. Since you have boldness, intercede that we may celebrate in peace the third-day Resurrection of the God and Savior of our souls!”

Sticheron from Orthros

St Basil the Great on the Martyrs

“What trouble would you not take to find some one to pray for you to the Lord! Here are forty, praying with one voice. Where two or three are gathered together in the name of the Lord, there is He in the midst. Who doubts His presence in the midst of forty? …

“Let your supplications be made with the martyrs. Let the young men imitate their fellows. Let fathers pray to be fathers of sons such as these. Let mothers learn from a good mother. … She herself lifted him in her arms and placed him on the cart with the rest bound for the pyre: a veritable martyr’s mother!

“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.”

From Homily 19