March 10, 2019: THE FORTY HOLY MARTYRS
March 10, 2019: COMMEMORATION OF THE FORTY HOLY MARTYRS
“Forty have we entered on the battle; let us, O Lord, receive Forty Crowns, and suffer not our number to be broken. The number is an honoured one, for thou didst fast for forty days, and the divine law was given to the world after the same number of days was observed. Elias, too, sought God by a forty days’ fast, and was permitted to see him.”
Grant, we beseech thee, O Almighty God, that as we have seen the courage of thy holy martyrs, in the confession of thy faith, we may experience their kindness in interceding with thee for us. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
We know the mystery of the number Forty. This tenth of March brings it before us. Forty new advocates! Forty encouraging us to enter bravely on our career of Penance! On the frozen pool, which was their field of battle, these Martyrs reminded one another that Jesus had fasted for Forty Days, and that they themselves were Forty in number! Let us, in our turn, compare their sufferings with the Lenten exercises which the Church imposes upon us; and humble ourselves in seeing our cowardice; or, if we begin with fervour, let us remember, that the grand thing is to be faithful to the end, and bring to the Easter Solemnity the crown of our perseverance. Our Forty Martyrs patiently endured the cruelest tortures; the fear of God, and their deeprooted conviction that he had an infinite claim to their fidelity, gave them the victory. How many times we have sinned, and had not such severe temptations as theirs to palliate our fall? How can we sufficiently bless that Divine mercy, which spared us, instead of abandoning us as he did that poor apostate, who turned coward and was lost! But, on what condition did God spare us? That we should not spare ourselves, but do penance. He put into our hands the rights of his own Justice; Justice, then, must be satisfied, and we must exercise it against ourselves. The Lives of the Saints will be of great help to us in this, for they will teach us how we are to look upon sin, how to avoid it, and how strictly we are bound to do penance for it, after having committed it.
The Church in her Liturgy, thus relates to us the martyrdom of the Soldiers of Sebaste.
During the reign of the Emperor Licinius, and under the presidency of Agricolaus, the city of Sebaste, in Armenia, was honoured by being made the scene of the martyrdom of forty soldiers, whose faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and patience in bearing tortures, were so glorious. After having been frequently confined in a horrid dungeon, shackled with chains, and having had their faces beaten with stones, they were condemned to pass a most bitter winter night in the open air, and on a frozen pool, that they might be frozen to death. When there, they united in this prayer: “Forty have we entered on the battle; let us, O Lord, receive Forty Crowns, and suffer not our number to be broken. The number is an honoured one, for thou didst fast for forty days, and the divine law was given to the world after the same number of days was observed. Elias, too, sought God by a forty days’ fast, and was permitted to see him.” Thus did they pray.
All the guards, except one, were asleep. He overheard their prayer, and saw them encircled with light, and Angels coming down from heaven, like messengers sent by a King, who distributed crowns to thirty-nine of the soldiers. Whereupon, he thus said to himself: “There are forty men; where is the fortieth crown? Whilst thus pondering, one of the number lost his courage; he could bear the cold no longer, and threw himself into a warm bath, which had been put near at hand. His saintly companions were exceedingly grieved at this. But God would not suffer their prayer to be void. The sentinel, astonished at what he had witnessed, went immediately and awoke the guards; then, taking off his garments, he cried out, with a loud voice, that he was a Christian, and associated himself with the Martyrs. No sooner did the governor's guards perceive that the sentinel had also declared himself to be a Christian, than they approached the Martyrs, and, with clubs, broke their legs.
All died under this torture except Melitho, who was the youngest of the forty. His mother, who was present, seeing that he was still living after his legs were broken, thus encouraged him: “My son, be patient yet awhile. Lo! Christ is at the door, helping thee.” But, as soon as she saw the other bodies being placed on carts, that they might be thrown on the pile, and her son left behind (for the impious men hoped, that, if the boy survived, he might be induced to worship the idols,) she lifted him up into her arms, and, summing up all her strength, ran after the waggons, on which the Martyrs' bodies were being carried. Melithon died in his mother's arms, and the holy woman threw his body on the pile, where the other martyrs were, that as he had been so united with them in faith and courage, he might be one with them in burial, and go to heaven in their company. As soon as the bodies were burnt, the pagans threw what remained into a river. The relics miraculously flowed to one and the same place, just as they were when they were taken from the pile. The Christians took them, and respectfully buried them.
A detailed account of the trial of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.
These holy martyrs suffered at Sebaste, in the Lesser Armenia, under the emperor Licinius, in 320. They were of different countries, but enrolled in the same troop; all in the flower of their age, comely, brave, and robust, and were become considerable for their services. St. Gregory of Nyssa and Procopius say, they were of the thundering legion, so famous under Marcus Aurelius for the miraculous rain and victory obtained by their prayers. This was the twelfth legion, and then quartered in Armenia. Lysias was duke or general of the forces, and Agricola the governor of the province. The latter having signified to the army the orders of the emperor Licinius, for all to sacrifice, these forty went boldly up to him, and said they were Christians, and that no torments should make them ever abandon their holy religion. The judge first endeavored to gain them by mild usage; as by representing to them the dishonor that would attend their refusal to do what was required, and by making them large promises of preferment and high favor with the emperor in case of compliance. Finding these methods of gentleness ineffectual, he had recourse to threats, and these the most terrifying, if they continued disobedient to the emperor's order, but all in vain. To his promises they answered, that he could give them nothing equal to what he would deprive them of: and to his threats, that his power only extended over their bodies, which they had learned to despise when their souls were at stake. The governor, finding them all resolute, caused them to be torn with whips, and their sides to be rent with iron hooks. After which they were loaded with chains, and committed to jail.
After some days, Lysias, their governor, coming from Cӕsarea to Sebaste, they were re-examined, and no less generously rejected the large promises made them than they despised the torments they were threatened with. The governor, highly offended at their courage, and that liberty of speech with which they accosted him, devised an extraordinary kind of death; which being slow and severe, he hoped would shake their constancy. The cold in Armenia is very sharp, especially in March, and towards the end of winter, when the wind is north, as it then was; it being also at that time a severe frost. Under the walls of the town stood a pond, which was frozen so hard that it would bear walking upon with safety. The judge ordered the saints to be exposed quite naked on the ice. And in order to tempt them the more powerfully to renounce their faith, a warm bath was prepared at a small distance from the frozen pond, for any of this company to go to, who were disposed to purchase their temporal ease and safety on that condition. The martyrs, on hearing their sentence, ran joyfully to the place, and without waiting to be stripped, undressed themselves, encouraging one another in the same manner as is usual among soldiers in military expeditions attended with hardships and dangers, saying, that one bad night would purchase them a happy eternity. They also made this their joint prayer: “Lord, we are forty who are engaged in this combat; grant that we may be forty crowned, and that not one be wanting to this sacred number.” The guards in the mean time ceased not to persuade them to sacrifice, that by so doing they might be allowed to pass to the warm bath. But though it is not easy to form a just idea of the bitter pain they must have undergone, of the whole number only one had the misfortune to be overcome; who, losing courage, went off from the pond to seek the relief in readiness for such as were disposed to renounce their faith: but as the devil usually deceives his adorers, the apostate no sooner entered the warm water but he expired. This misfortune afflicted the martyrs; but they were quickly comforted by seeing his place and their number miraculously filled up. A sentinel was warming himself near the bath, having been posted there to observe if any of the martyrs were inclined to submit. While he was attending, he had a vision of blessed spirits descending from heaven on the martyrs, and distributing, as from their king, rich presents, and precious garments, St. Ephrem adds crowns, to all these generous soldiers, one only excepted, who was their faint-hearted companion, already mentioned. The guard, being struck with the celestial vision and the apostate's desertion, was converted upon it; and by a particular motion of the Holy Ghost, threw off his clothes, and placed himself in his stead among the thirty-nine martyrs. Thus God heard their request, though in another manner than they imagined: “Which ought to make us adore the impenetrable secrets of his mercy and justice,” says St. Ephrem, “in this instance, no less than in the reprobation of Judas, and the election of St. Matthias.”
In the morning the judge ordered both those that were dead with the cold, and those that were still alive, to be laid on carriages, and cast into a fire. When the rest were thrown into a wagon to be carried to the pile, the youngest of them (whom the acts call Melito) was found alive; and the executioners, hoping he would change his resolution when he came to himself, left him behind. His mother, a woman of mean condition, and a widow, but rich in faith, and worthy to have a son a martyr, observing this false compassion, reproached the executioners; and when she came up to her son, whom she found quite frozen, not able to stir, and scarce breathing, he looked on her with languishing eyes, and made a little sign with his weak hand to comfort her. She exhorted him to persevere to the end, and, fortified by the Holy Ghost, took him up, and put him with her own hands into the wagon with the rest of the martyrs, not only without shedding a tear, but with a countenance full of joy, saying, courageously: “Go, go, son, proceed to the end of this happy journey with thy companions, that thou mayest not be the last of them that shall present themselves before God.” Nothing can be more inflamed or more pathetic than the discourse which St. Ephrem puts into her mouth, by which he expresses her contempt of life and all earthly things, and her ardent love and desire of eternal life. This holy father earnestly entreats her to conjure this whole troop of martyrs to join in imploring the divine mercy in favor of his sinful soul. Their bodies were burned, and their ashes thrown into the river; but the Christians secretly carried off, or purchased part of them with money. Some of these precious relics were kept at Cӕsarea, and St. Basil says of them: “Like bulwarks, they are our protection against the inroads of enemies.” He adds, that every one implored their succor, and that they raised up those that had fallen, strengthened the weak, and invigorated the fervor of the saints. SS. Basil and Emmelia, the holy parents of St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Peter of Sebaste, and St. Macrina, procured a great share of these relics. St. Emmelia put some of them in the church she built near Anneses, the village where they resided. The solemnity with which they were received was extraordinary, and they were honored by miracles, as St. Gregory relates. One of these was a miraculous cure wrought on a lame soldier, the truth of which he attests from his own knowledge, both of the fact and the person, who published it everywhere. He adds: “I buried the bodies of my parents by the relics of these holy martyrs, that in the resurrection they may rise with the encouragers of their faith; for I know they have great power with God, of which I have seen clear proofs and undoubted testimonies.” St. Gaudentius, bishop of Brescia, writes in his sermon on these martyrs: “God gave me a share of these venerable relics, and granted me to found this church in their honor.” He says, that the two nieces of St. Basil, both abbesses, gave them to him as he passed by Cӕsarea, in a journey to Jerusalem; which venerable treasure they had received from their uncle. Portions of their relics were also carried to Constantinople, and there honored with great veneration, as Sozomen and Procopius have recorded at large, with an account of several visions and miracles, which attended the veneration paid to them in that city.
Though we are not all called to the trial of martyrdom, we are all bound daily to fight and to conquer too. By multiplied victories which we gain over our passions and spiritual enemies, by the exercise of meekness, patience, humility, purity, and all other virtues, we shall render our triumph complete, and attain to the crown of bliss. But are we not confounded at our sloth in our spiritual warfare, when we look on the conflicts of the martyrs? “The eloquence of the greatest orators, and the wisdom of the philosophers were struck dumb: the very tyrants and judges stood amazed, and were not able to find words to express their admiration, when they beheld the faith, the cheerfulness and constancy of the holy martyrs in their sufferings. But what excuse shall we allege in the tremendous judgment, who, without meeting with such cruel persecution and torments, are so remiss and slothful in maintaining the spiritual life of our souls, and the charity of God! What shall we do in that terrible day, when the holy martyrs, placed near the throne of God, with great confidence shall display their glorious scars, the proofs of their fidelity? What shall we then show? shall we produce our love for God? true faith? a disengagement of our affections from earthly things souls freed from the tyranny of the passions? retirement and peace of mind? Meekness? alms-deeds and compassion? holy and pure prayer? sincere compunction? watching and tears? Happy shall he be whom these works shall attend. He shall then be the companion of the martyrs, and shall appear with the same confidence before Christ and his angels. We beseech you, O most holy martyrs, who cheerfully suffered torments and death for his love, and are now more familiarly united to him, that you intercede with God for us slothful and wretched sinners, that he bestow on us the grace of Christ, by which we may be enlightened and enabled to love him.”
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Septuagesima, Edition 1870;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. I, 1903; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
Ye Forty Holy Martyrs, pray for us.