The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste – the Promised Crown of Life

“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  Revelation 2:10

It would be hard to give a more illustrious account of the plight of these men then that given by Simeon Mataphrastes.[1] Simeon writes of this episode of martyrdom based on a homily by Basil of Caesarea, Bishop of Caesarea.[2]

“In the time of the Emperor Licinius there arose very great persecution against the Christians, so that they were sought for in every place, and if they would not deny the Christian faith they were cruelly put to death. In this persecution the demon took for his minister a most cruel man, whose name was Agricolaus. This man received notice that in the army of the emperor there was a company of forty soldiers from the province of Cappadocia — men of much valour, as they had shown themselves in all the undertakings in which they had been engaged; and all, being Christians, confessed that Jesus Christ was the true God.

“The army was then in Sebaste, a city of Armenia, whence the prefect had them all conducted before him; and they being led into his presence, he began to speak to them pleasantly, and said: ‘I have heard of the great friendship which there is among you, and which has been the cause of your doing great deeds in the service of the emperor. I 40muchenikovdesire that your friendship may continue, and that you may all obey his commandments. He commands that you shall either sacrifice to the gods or be put to death. To me it seems wrong that men so worthy of living should be put to death in the flower of their age. Accept then my counsel, because thus you will not only save your lives, but you will receive great rewards and riches from the emperor; consider well therefore what you will do.’ To this the valiant cavaliers of Christ replied: ‘If we have gained victory fighting for the earthly emperor, and have done notable deeds as thou sayest, how much more ought we to do worthy deeds fighting for the Emperor of Heaven; in this fashion we desire to fight, and we are ready to support all the torments which thou canst inflict on us. And since thou dost offer us riches and rewards, know that nothing is of any value in comparison with that which we should lose if we did what thou requirest of us.’ The prefect answered: ‘Now consider the case well and what you will do, for to-morrow we shall meet again;’ and having thus said, he ordered them to be led to prison, where these saints remained, singing the psalms of David and praying God to help them in the conflict in which they hoped soon to find themselves.

“The next day they were brought again before the prefect, who exhorted them to sacrifice to the idols. But they mocked him with scornful words, seeking to incite him to commence their martyrdom. The prefect himself indeed desired this, but did not allow himself to sentence them until the arrival of the captain under whose banner they had served, that they might both together pronounce sentence on them; for this reason he had them returned to prison without tormenting them, where they remained seven days until the captain came. Then the prefect and the captain together, being ready to judge the martyrs, ordered them to be brought before them to receive sentence. When they heard this, a little fear entered the hearts of some, which Cirion, who was one of them, perceiving, he said to them with a face full of joy and courage: ‘My brothers, remember the day when we found ourselves in battle, abandoned by all the rest of the emperor’s army, and when we were surrounded by innumerable enemies, and nevertheless, praying to God, we were delivered with the death or flight of our antagonists. Now we have only three enemies, the prefect, the captain, and the devil; and we being forty, shall we fear to be conquered? God forbid; if we have had victory over many, we shall also have it over few; let us ask help of God and pray, for prayer is a fit weapon for such a battle.’ At these words they all took heart, and kneeling down they said a psalm of David, which they were accustomed to say before going into any great battle, which commences: ‘Deus in nomine tuo salvem me fac, et in virtute tua iudica me.’[3]

“So being all comforted, they left the prison and presented themselves before the judges.

“The captain, taking the first word, said: ‘How now! is this the return you make our emperor for the favours and rewards which he has bestowed on you more freely than on any other soldiers of his army? Ought you then to despise his commands so obstinately? I counsel you to change your course, for if not, you will be as much punished by me as you have been rewarded by him. Either adore the gods or lay aside your military dress and prepare to suffer great torments.’

“To which Candidas, one of the forty soldiers, answered: ‘Deprive us freely of our military dress and of our lives together, for we shall hold them as much less loss than to lose Jesus Christ.’”

We must now break from our narrative for those that were judging these soldiers of Christ became intolerably angry at what they perceived as them being obstinate. We, however, as Christians know this as persisting in the faith. Our warriors knew that Jesus had told them “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”[4] As we now return to our narrative we find their persecutors conspiring as to their fate:

“And that they might have time to consult together what torment they could give them that would be most intolerable, they had them carried back to prison. The saints passed the night in praising God, who, to give them to understand that He had heard them, spoke to them in such a manner that they all heard the voice. ‘Your beginning has been valiant and illustrious, but he who endureth to the end shall be saved.’ This voice, if on the one hand it greatly consoled them, nevertheless on the other put them in fear for the doubt that some one of them might not be constant in martyrdom, and each feared that he should be the one. On the following day the martyrs were removed from the prison that the sentence might be executed which the two wicked judges had ordered between them, which was this — that the season being cold, and there being a great lake near the walls of Sebaste, they should all be thrown into it.[5] They afterwards ordered that there, by the side of the lake, a bath of warm water should be prepared, so that if any one of them were willing to deny Jesus Christ, he might of himself pass into that bath and recover. St. Basil never wearies of magnifying this torment, saying that only those who have been at the point of death from cold can tell what terrible suffering it is. But though the glorious martyrs well knew that the pain to which they were condemned was a terrible one, such was the desire which they had to suffer for the love of Christ that, without waiting for the officers to remove their garments, they put them off themselves; each one hurried himself, each endeavoured to be the first, that he might have a little more merit than his companions.

“St. Basil notes this because God heard their prayer and accepted it. The same saint says also, that when the cold began to torment them, they said: ‘It is a hard thing to suffer the cold, but it will be a sweet thing to enjoy paradise. Now the frost afflicts us, but then heaven will comfort us. We are giving one night for eternity.’ Now the tyrants had set guards on the shore, that no one should come out of the water unless, denying his faith, he entered into the bath of warm water.” [6]

For it was on that frozen lake that the forty left their earthly bodies and became present with the Lord. Gregory of Nyssa in commemorating the martyrs noted that natives of the area are fully acquainted with its severity of their winters when he wrote: “I have also heard that another phenomenon occurs in your winters, namely, that the constantly flowing rivers freeze over, and their waves congeal to stone. The nearby lake turns into land, and horses can ride upon its hardened waves. I also know that inhabitants of this area often acquire water by melting it. For example, they take water which became hard as stone and break it up much like a piece of copper or iron. Such was the season of the [martyrs’] contest and the time of their miracles when the north wind blew so vehemently.”

Gregory of Nyssa concludes that “The inevitability of death does not constrain them; rather, liberation is in their power if they surrender. A bath was placed close by in order to tempt them; its door remained open and bade them to enter. The tyrant stood by and cunningly offered it as alluring bait for their freezing bodies. He exhorted them to desert the cold just like that father [the serpent] who tempted our first parents to taste the tree’s fruit. Instead, the [martyrs] remained steadfast knowing that patience which bears such trials will come to their aide.”[7]

For the trials and tribulations that these men faced were of no consequence since they measured these against the cost of denying their faith and their Lord Jesus Christ. We leave these saints for the moment knowing as Jonathan Edwards tells us: “And when the souls of the saints leave their bodies, to go to be with Christ, they behold the marvelous glory of that great work of his, the work of redemption, and of the glorious way of salvation by him; desire to look into. They have a most clear view of the unfathomable depths of the manifold wisdom and knowledge of God; and the most bright displays of the infinite purity and holiness of God, that do appear in that way and work; and see in a much clearer manner than the saints do here, what is the breadth and length, and depth and height of the grace and love of Christ, appearing in his redemption. And as they see the unspeakable riches and glory of the attribute of God’s grace, so they most clearly behold and understand Christ’s eternal and unmeasurable dying love to them in particular. And in short, they see every thing in Christ that tends to kindle and inflame love, and every thing that tends to gratify love, and every thing that tends to satisfy them: and that in the most clear and glorious manner, without any darkness or delusion, without any impediment or interruption. Now the saints, while in the body, see something of Christ’s glory and love; as we, in the dawning of the morning, see something of the reflected light of the sun mingled with darkness; but when separated from the body, they see their glorious and loving Redeemer, as we see the sun when risen, and showing his whole disk above the horizon, by his direct beams, in a clear hemisphere, and with perfect day.”[8]

For when in the body our brothers in the faith so witnessed the wickedness of the sinful world. For Satan threw at them all that he could. “They stood firm with trembling limbs, and their minds were constant before God in a struggle witnessed by angels, men and demons. The angels awaited the departure of their souls for the purpose of conducting them to their destiny. Men awaited their end and tested the endurance of their human nature to discover if their fear and hope for the future would triumph over pain. The demons were especially curious to see these athletes fall and come to ruin, but their expectations were dashed because God had strengthened them.”[9]

[1]              Symeon Metaphrastes was a writer of edifying histories of the early saints. Scholars have been very much divided as to the period in which he lived, dates ranging from the 9th century to the 14th having been suggested.

[2]              Basil of Caesarea, c. 329-379. Basil was born in Caesarea, capitol of Cappadocia, the province from which the forty martyrs were from.

[3]               Psalm 54:1 Save me, O God, by your name; vindicate me by your might. (New International Version)

[4]              Matthew 24: 9-13 (New International Version)

[5]              Basil does not attest to the Martyrs being thrown into the lake but were left on the frozen lake exposed to the frigid cold.

[6]              Il libro d’oro, of those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, By Lucia Gray Swett Alexander, Published by D. Nutt, 1905, pp 321-325

[7]              The Second Homily Concerning the Forty Martyrs, Part 2, by Gregory of Nyssa

[8]              Jonathan Edwards, True Saints, When Absent From The Body, Are Present With The Lord. Sermon VI. Preached on the day of the funeral of the Reverend Mr. David Brainerd, Missionary to the Indians, from the Honorable Society in Scotland for the propagation of Christian Knowledge, and Pastor of a Church of Christian Indians in New Jersey; delivered October 9, 1747.

[9]              The Second Homily Concerning the Forty Martyrs, Part 2, by Gregory of Nyssa

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