March 9 (Byzantine calendar) - March 10 (Roman calendar)
In many parts of the Christian Church, on 9th of March in the East and on 10th March in the West, there is commemorated the memory of a group of forty soldiers who suffered a martyr's death for their steadfast faith to Christ, by freezing in a lake near Sebaste, in the former Lesser Armenia (now Sivas in central-eastern Turkey). Latest historical research argue that the widespread story about the suffering of the forty soldiers, is in fact a compilation of some more acts occurring at different times and in many places, which is in our opinion, possible, but not essential here. We may see the veneration of the 40 Martyrs as a symbol-feast for all the Christian soldiers who died for their faith during their service.
The feast day of the Forty Martyrs falls on March 9, and may be intentionally placed that it will fall during Great Lent. There is an intentional play on the number forty being both the number of martyrs and the days in the fast. Their feast also falls during Great Lent so that the endurance of the martyrs will serve as an example to the faithful to persevere to the end (i.e., throughout the forty days of the fast) in order to attain heavenly reward (participation in Pascha, the Resurrection of Jesus).
Acts of these martyrs, were written in Greek, Syriac and Latin and are yet extant, also to a “Testament” of the Forty Martyrs.
The Story of their Lives
The 40 Martyrs from Sebaste died as victims of the harsh politic of the Roman Emperor Licinius (c. 263 – 325, Emperor from 308 to 324) who, after the year 316, persecuted explicitly the Christians of the East. The earliest account of their martyrdom is given by St. Basil, the Archbishop of Caesarea (370-379), in a homily delivered on the feast of the Forty Martyrs (Hom. xix in P.G., XXXI, 507 sqq.). His eulogy on them was pronounced about fifty or sixty years after martyrdom, which is historic beyond a doubt.
In the early 4th century Sebaste was the capital of the province of Armenia Minor. In the city at that time was stationed the Legion XII Fulminata (Armed with Lightning), among whom were 40 Cappadocians soldiers who had faith in Christ. Three of them, Cyrion, Candidus and Domnus were already known as very good in studying the Scriptures. Of course, the governor Agricolas, who strictly complied Licinius’ imperial command relating to punish the Christians, found out about the faithful soldiers in his army. Hearing about their faith, Agricolas forced them to worship idols. The Orthodox Synaxarion relates the text of the governor’s command: “As in the wars you have been with a soul and a conscience and you've shown your courage, so far now, with one mind and soul, you must show your obedience to the imperial laws and sacrifice willingly to the gods, before being forced up”. At these words, the holy soldiers, answered the tyrant: “The more for the earthly emperor we fought in the wars and we conquered enemies, as you were witness, you bastard, the more we will fight stronger for the immortal Emperor, and we will overcome your evilness and deceit”.
Refusing to sacrifice to the idols, all the 40 soldiers have been jailed for eight days, beaten with stones, but at the same time have been also lured with gifts to give up their minds. Finally, being organized a process, at which attended also some other governor called Lysius, they were sentenced to death for disobeying the emperor and for witchcraft. The punishment consisted of freezing them in Sebaste lake, located in a mountainous region (an elevation of 1,278 m. altitude). At the time of the passion of this holy martyrs it was still winter, in those days being a keen frost and high winds. So the martyrs were obliged to enter naked in the lake, at the time of the dusk. Around the lake were put some soldiers to guard the martyrs, not to get out. But near the lake there was also a warm bath, made purposely, so if any of the martyrs would changed his mind and would be willing to sacrifice the Roman gods, to emerge from the water and to heat first there.
Being forced to undress and enter the cold waters of the lake, one of the martyrs exclaimed: “We don’t take off our clothes, but we take off the old man. Winter is harsh, but the Paradise is sweet; the cold is strong, but the delight is pleasant. For the Paradise lost we should today no longer endure the corruptible clothes. We shall defame the ice which melts us and to hate our body”.
After a while, one of the 40 gave up and left the lake, but died on the spot, being no able to warm himself into the hot bath. But that night it happened an unusual miracle: the lake’s water has warmed, the ice melted and 39shiny crowns came down from heaven upon the martyrs. This miracle was seen by the only one unsleeping guard, called Aglaius, who numbered only 39 crowns, and realized that a soldier ran away out of the water. Then, the guard woke the others, stripped his clothes and jumped into the lake, shouting that, “I am a Christian, too”. At dawn, the Saints were removed alive from the lake, they broken their legs and so they were left to die.
It is remarkable that the Constantinopolitan Synaxarion reminds here an unusual fact: a mother of one from the martyrs, i.e. Meliton, came there and established him with words of encouragement. Thus, instead of requesting the saving of his son's, she said, “My sweet son, be a little more time patient to become perfect. Do not worry, son. Here Christ stands before helping you!”
The same Synaxarion noted the words of the martyrs before their death: “Our soul is a bird that was rescued from hunters’ race, the race was broken and we’ve been delivered. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth! Amen.”
The army commander then ordered that the bodies of saints to be burned. But Meliton somehow survived and was left to live. When his mother saw him alone standing, she took him on her shoulders and went after the cart full of the other bodies, and Melito, enjoying that will not lose the martyrdom, died in her arms. She ultimately reached the cart and she put her dead son’s body over the bodies of saints.
This strange manhood of a martyr’s mother may be a paradox for us today, if not an act of craziness or cruelness. But it is remarkable that the Christian idea of martyrdom surpasses that, what we might call as “modern humanism”. A martyr’s mother wants her son’s death rather than the loss of the martyrdom. It is known that the martyr’s death in the early Christianity was also seen like the death of the heroes in the old times. Martyrdom automatically ensures salvation and the likeness with the sacrifice of Christ.
The bodies of the 40 saints were eventually burnt, and then were thrown into a river, in order that the Christians not to be able to recover their relics. However, their remains were partially recovered and then spread to various churches in the area.
Being at the end of this story, I think it would be good to make a citation from the Menaion of the Eastern Orthodox Church:
“And the names of those 40 martyrs are: Hesychius, Meliton, Heraclius, Smaragdus, Domnus, Eunoicus, Valens, Vivianus, Claudius, Priscus, Theodulus, Euthychius, John, Xantheas, Helianus, Sisinius, Cyrion, Angius, Aetius, Flavius, Acacius, Ecditius, Lysimachus, Alexander, Elias, Candidus, Theophilus, Dometian, Gaius, Gorgonius, Leontius, Athanasius, Cyril, Sacerdon, Nicholas, Valaerius, Philoctimon, Severian, Chudion, and Aglaius.
The Forty Holy Martyrs were captured and suffered for Christ, 4 days above the March's Kalendae, that means, in the twenty-sixth day of February. And they gave their souls to the Lord in the seventh Idae of March, i.e. the ninth day of March, in the times of the Licinius’ governing in the East. But especially, in the times of the of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom is due the glory, the honor and the worship as also to the Father and to the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen”.
The Veneration of the Saints
Homelies about the Holy Martyrs
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c 335 – after 394) wrote at least 2 discourses in praise of them, which are still preserved in the Patrologia J. P. Migne, P.G., vol. 46, cols. 749 sq., 773 sq.).
St. Ephraem the Syrian (ca. 306 – 373), has also eulogized the forty Martyrs (Hymni in SS. 40 martyres).
Sozomen, who was an eye-witness, has left us (in his Historia Ecclesiastica IX,2) an interesting account of the finding of the relics in Constantinople in the times of the Empress Pulcheria (399 – 453).
Veneration in the East
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.
The Churches of St. Sophia in Ohrid (modern-day Republic of Macedonia) and Kiev (Ukraine) contain their depictions, datable to the 11th and 12th centuries, respectively. A number of auxiliary chapels were dedicated to the Forty, and there are several instances when an entire church is dedicated to them: for example Xiropotamou Monastery on Mount Athos, the 13th-century Holy Forty Martyrs Church, in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and a church built in 1760 by the hetman Vasile Roset in Iaşi, the capital of the Principality of Moldova (now, Romania). In Aleppo (Syria), the Armenian Cathedral is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs.
In the West, special devotion to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste was introduced at an early date; their feast day is 10 March. St. Gaudentius, Bishop of Brescia (5th century), received particles of the ashes of martyrs during his 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 (mention in Migne’s Patrologia Latina, vol. 20, cols. 959 sq.)
Near the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, in the Roman Forum, built in the 5th century, a chapel consecrated to the Forty Martyrs was found, built, like the church itself, on an ancient site. A still preserved picture there, dating from the 6th or 7th century, depicts the scene of the martyrdom.
The Hymn of the Saints (Troparion): “For the pain of the Saints who have suffered for you, we pray to You: Be merciful, O Lord, and heal all our sorrows, ye Lover of mankind!”
A prayer mentioning the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste is placed also in the Orthodox Wedding Service (referred to as a “crowning”), to remind the bride and groom that spiritual crowns await them in Heaven also if they remain as faithful to Christ as these saints of long ago.
In Romania and throughout the Balkan Peninsula, the memory of these martyrs gave rise to certain popular customs, consisting of the preparation of food: wheat flour (the crushed wheat grain is a symbol of death), sweets (they remember the joy of victory) and spices, especially cinnamon (symbol of suffering).
Those occasional cakes carry even the name of the Martyrs (rom. “Mucenici”, slav. “мучеников” = martyrs). They are prepared in the form of the cipher eight (8), suggesting the crowns offered martyrs, or maybe it’s the infinity symbol (∞). In other regions, the “Martyrs” are smaller breads sunken in a composition of water with sugar, nuts and milk, that looks like frozen water, reminding the lake where the faithful soldiers died. They are consumed in the family and divided to the neighbors, or in the church after the Holy Liturgy. The meanings of this custom is partly forgotten today, but it remains as a proof of the deep faith of our ancestors and of their power of combining artistic creativity with piety.