Saints of the Day: Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saints, the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, is found in Volume 1 of the series.)

The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

A blissful couple standing before a priest as he intones the beautiful prayers contained in the sacrament of marriage of the Orthodox Church are aware of the solemnity of the words they hear, but cannot grasp the real significance of one of the prayers offered unless they know the story of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. In the fifteen hundred years since the prayers were introduced by the Holy Fathers in the marriage ceremony, those who have taken the trouble to ask why the Forty Martyrs are invoked in this sacrament hear a sacred story which is both tragic and beautiful and gives added meaning to the occasion.

The prayer reads, “Remember them [the bride and groom], O Lord, as thou didst thy Forty Holy Martyrs, sending down upon them crowns from heaven ...” The symbolic crowns, with which many a nervous man has fumbled in the wedding ceremony, stem from the traditional crowns sent from heaven for the holy martyrs, and thereon hangs one of the most poignant tales in church history.

The story begins in the fourth century during the reign of the cruel Emperor Licinius (320) when a group of forty young soldiers of the Roman army garrisoned in the city of Sebaste, Armenia, were deeply committed to the service of Jesus Christ while finding it possible to serve the emperor in the devout country of Armenia, the first nation to proclaim Christianity as the religion of the realm. They were as courageous and as fiercely proud of their garrison as any in the armies of Rome, but unlike most others had found the truth of the word of Jesus Christ.

They were prime examples of men who could bear arms for their country and still worship the Prince of Peace, not at all difficult to conceive today when chaplains are in evidence not only in the armed services but in law enforcement bodies as well. There was no chaplain to see to the spiritual needs of the forty young men, the lack of which only serves to underscore the fact that they acted in the service of the Lord completely on their own.

Not only did these forty young men accept Christ as their Savior on their own initiative, but they did so with the full knowledge that in so doing they ran a considerable risk to their personal safety. It was only a matter of time, therefore, until the word of their allegiance to Christ became known to Licinius, a tyrant of less than noble character who forthwith issued an edict that those who failed to worship the pagan gods would face punishment that could include torture or death.

A contingent was sent from Rome to Sebaste for the express purpose of bringing to justice the forty soldiers of this Armenian garrison, all of whom refused to disavow Christ. On orders from Licinius they were given the choice of recanting or dying, but not a single soldier among the forty stepped forward to be counted as a pagan and thereby save his life. It was bitterly cold at this particular time and this led to the idea to strip the soldiers naked and stand them out by a lake where the frigid winds would eventually and painfully freeze them to death.

The forty young soldiers stood shivering in the cold, looking across to the warm fires of the pagans to which they could go if they would only deny Christ, but the forty preferred death to that kind of dishonor and stood their ground. There was one in this holy group that finally weakened and, expressing his defection, he started for the warmth of the glowing fires but died before he could reach them.

As death approached, a band of angels descended from heaven and placed crowns on the heads of the dying soldiers, a spectacle which so overcame one of the pagan guards that he stripped himself and rushed to die at the side of these who had been made the bridegrooms of heaven. The late arrival’s death brought to forty the number who died for Christ on that somber day, replacing the solitary defector who died in vain.

It is for this reason that a prayer invoking the forty young members of the Roman garrison is included in the wedding rite as a symbol of the blessing of heaven for those who keep their faith in Jesus Christ.

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