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Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

On March 9, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. The Feast usually falls during Great Lent. Sebaste was a city in Asia Minor governed by Constantine the Great’s co-ruler, Licinius. Even after Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 which made Christianity legal, Licinius, in his section of the Roman Empire, was determined to extinguish Christianity.
 
One of Licinius’ greatest military commanders was Agricola who was a staunch idolator just like Licinius. Under his command were forty brave Cappadocian soldiers. When these forty soldiers who were Christians refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, he threw them into jail.
 
Despite persuasion and flattery, Agricola was not able to break down the faith of the forty soldiers. He ordered that they be stoned but all the stones never touched the brave soldiers, rather were miraculously thrown back at those who were throwing them.
 
Later that evening in their cells, the brave soldiers heard the voice of the Lord say: He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live (John 11:25). The brave soldiers were about to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. 
 
The next morning, the forty soldiers were brought to a freezing cold lake and ordered to enter it. Sentries were placed to prevent them from escaping but along the shore was a warm bathhouse in case the soldiers were weak and abandoned Christ. 
 
Unfortunately, during the first hour of the night, the water became so unbearably cold that one of the soldiers fled the lake and ran for the bathhouse, however, immediately fell dead. A little later in that night, the Lord sent consolation to the martyrs. A light appeared and the ice began to melt, making the water warm. 
 
One of the guards, Aglaius, noticed a crown appear over the heads of the thirty-nine Cappadocians. At that moment, he decided to remove his clothes and enter the lake, confessing that he too was a Christian. He was determined to restore the original number of martyrs to forty.
 
In the morning, all forty martyrs were still alive, yet, taken away for more torture, including leg breaking and eventually they were all burned. Later, Bishop Peter of Sebaste along with some other clergy in the area, buried the remains of the forty martyrs.
 
We see an antithesis of two men, one was given the opportunity to contest for his faith in Christ but was not able to endure the bitter cold. He abandoned the freezing lake, thinking he would find comfort in the warm bathhouse, but instead died. The other man was initially not a Christian but very soon became one while bearing witness to the sacrifices of the thirty-nine martyrs. Aglaius, did not hesitate at all to abandon his comfort so that the original number of martyrs, crowned in glory, may be preserved. He abandoned the comfort for the frigid lake. 
 
Viewing the torture as pleasure, running to the freezing lake as to warm comforts, the holy Martyrs said to one another: "Let us not shrink from the winter weather, so that we may escape the fiery Gehenna. Let our feet be burnt so they can dance forever. Let our hands drop off, so we may lift them to the Lord. And let us have no pity for our mortal nature. Let us choose death, so that we may wear the crowns of victory that are given by Christ God, the Savior of our souls (Sticheron of Festal Vespers).
 
The conversion of Aglaius reminds us of Longinus, the centurion who bore witness to the Crucifixion of Christ. And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit.’” Having said this, He breathed His last. So when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, “Certainly this was a righteous Man (Lk 23: 46-47).” Longinus was a pagan but having stood before Christ Himself on the Cross, he converted and now is numbered among the Saints.
 
One man loses faith while another gains. This comparison is so vivid. The one soldier thought he would be spared by fleeing the freezing water for a warm bathhouse, yet lost his life as he fled. Aglaius, on the other hand, willingly sacrificed his temporary earthly life, so that he may live eternally. This all is in fulfillment of what Christ said: if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it (Lk 9: 23-24).  
 
It is fitting that this Feast of the Holy Forty Martyrs falls during Great Lent or immediately before it, in preparation thereof. Forty is a significant number for both the number of days of the Great Fast and for the number of days Christ remained on the Earth from his Resurrection to His Ascension. As we begin the arduous journey through Lent, may the faith of the Holy Martyrs of Sebaste strengthen us. Yes, we will struggle spiritually throughout the Great Fast and even perhaps physically, yet, if we keep our focus on Christ, He will not forsake us. 
 
Each of us might wonder whether or not we would be able to withstand great torture, like being in a frozen lake in the winter. Would we not out of weakness run towards that warm bathhouse? It is scary to think we could very much be like that one soldier who fled, however, if we truly have faith and surrender ourselves to Christ, He will not let us fail. 
 
O medaled Martyrs of Christ, you make the preeminent Fast more cheerful, with the commemoration of your glorious contest. Being forty in number, you sanctify the forty-day fast of Lent, for you imitated the saving Passion of Christ, by your contest for His sake. Therefore, since you have confidence before Him, intercede for us, that we may peacefully reach the third-day Resurrection of our God and Savior of our souls (Doxastikon of Festal Matins).
 
O Holy Forty Martyrs, intercede for all us before the Lord our God!
 
-John Athanasatos 
 
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

 

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