In Western Christianity we are generally asked to offer a very meager price for the practice of our faith. Yes, we are continually confronted with making “big sacrifices” like: having to get up and go to church… like having to be patient if the service lasts more than one hour… or having to actually study our bible and attend some classes… and fitting in some “prayer time” – most often only when we need a solution to a crisis we may be in. Such are the minimal sacrifices we are asked to offer God, in comparison to the saints who have gone before us.
And so I wonder….
Given the choice of the 40 Soldiers at Sebaste: “What would I have done?” “What would you have done?” Would we be ready and willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for Christ by being stripped of clothing and cast upon a frozen ice laden lake to endure a slow agonizing death, or would we deny Him for a warm fire, rich satisfying foods, clothing and comfort? Would we rather freeze painfully and slowly upon a frozen tundra, not alone but with our brothers and angels (as you will soon read), or choose to live alone and lonely with godless strangers and pagans in so-called ‘comfort’? How can I, or how could any of us ‘live,’ if we deny our Lord? In denying Him there is no life worth living. However in dying for Him and with Him, there is life, and life eternal.
I am not a prophet. Just a simple layman. But we can ‘prophesy’ with certainty and be sure of one thing: in these last days, the Scriptures tell us that things will grow fierce, the war against Christ and His Church will increase, the attack against His people will grow in frequency and ferocity, and the sacrifices we will be asked to make shall become physical, and perhaps bloody – in our own lifetime. So how do we prepare? We prepare like a world-class athlete: we go into strict training – now! Today… we don’t put off preparing for tomorrow. Each day through prayer, confession, repentance, through works of spiritual & corporal acts of mercy; and each week through the Liturgy and the Sacraments of the Church we grow in sanctification, our souls increase and become strong, more and more a partaker of the Divine Nature. We build the muscles of holiness, we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and we receive divine assistance through living life in the Church… all of this activity and exercise so that WHEN the time comes for us to make the choice on the ice as the soldiers, or in the arena as the women martyrs, and in the fire like Laurence and Polycarp… we will stand and say ‘No’ to the world and yes to eternal life in Christ.
Allow this story of heroic faith and courage strengthen you and beckon you to run a race full of faith with great diligence and fervor.
In the year 313 St Constantine the Great issued an edict granting Christians religious freedom, and officially recognizing Christianity as equal with paganism under the law. But his co-ruler Licinius was a pagan, and he decided to stamp out Christianity in his part of the Empire. As Licinius prepared his army to fight Constantine, he decided to remove Christians from his army, fearing mutiny.
One of the military commanders of that time in the Armenian city of Sebaste was Agricola, a zealous champion of idolatry. Under his command was a company of forty Cappadocians, brave soldiers who had distinguished themselves in many battles. When these Christian soldiers refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, Agricola locked them up in prison. The soldiers occupied themselves with prayer and psalmody, and during the night they heard a voice saying, “Persevere until the end, then you shall be saved.”
On the following morning, the soldiers were again taken to Agricola. This time the pagan tried flattery. He began to praise their valor, their youth and strength, and once more he urged them to renounce Christ and thereby win themselves the respect and favor of their emperor.
Seven days later, the renowned judge Licius arrived at Sebaste and put the soldiers on trial. The saints steadfastly answered, “Take not only our military insignia, but also our lives, since nothing is more precious to us than Christ God.” Licius then ordered his servants to stone the holy martyrs. But the stones missed the saints and returned to strike those who had thrown them. One stone thrown by Licius hit Agricola in the face, smashing his teeth. The torturers realized that the saints were guarded by some invisible power. In prison, the soldiers spent the night in prayer and again they heard the voice of the Lord comforting them: “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live (John 11:25). Be brave and fear not, for you shall obtain imperishable crowns.”
On the following day the judge repeated the interrogation in front of the torturer, but the soldiers remained unyielding.
It was winter, and there was a severe frost. They lined up the holy soldiers, threw them into the ice filled lake near the city, and set a guard to prevent them from coming out of the water. In order to break the will of the martyrs, a warm bath-house was set up on the shore. During the first hour of the night, when the cold had become unbearable, one of the soldiers made a dash for the bath-house, but no sooner had he stepped over the threshold, than he fell down dead.
During the third hour of the night, the Lord sent consolation to the martyrs. Suddenly there was light, the ice melted away, and the water in the lake became warm. All the guards were asleep, except for Aglaius, who was keeping watch. Looking at the lake he saw that a radiant crown had appeared over the head of each martyr. Aglaius counted thirty-nine crowns and realized that the soldier who fled had lost his crown.
Aggias then woke up the other guards, took off his uniform and said to them, “I too am a Christian,” and he joined the martyrs. Standing in the water he prayed, “Lord God, I believe in You, in Whom these soldiers believe. Add me to their number, and make me worthy to suffer with Your servants.” Then a fortieth crown appeared over his head.
In the morning, the torturers saw with surprise that the martyrs were still alive, and their guard Aggias was glorifying Christ together with them. They led the soldiers out of the water and broke their legs. During this horrible execution the mother of the youngest of the soldiers, Meliton, pleaded with her son not to persevere until death.
They put the bodies of the martyrs on a cart and committed them to fire. Young Meliton was still breathing, and they left him to lay on the ground. His mother then picked up her son, and on her own shoulders she carried him behind the cart. When Meliton drew his last breath, his mother put him on the cart with the bodies of his fellow sufferers. The bodies of the saints were tossed in the fire, and their charred bones were thrown into the water, so that Christians would not gather them up.
Three days later the martyrs appeared in a dream to St Peter, Bishop of Sebaste, and commanded him to bury their remains. The bishop together with several clergy gathered up the relics of the glorious martyrs by night and buried them with honor. The soldiers of Christ suffered honorably and were crowned with unfading glory in the year 320 A.D.
There is a pious custom of baking “skylarks” (pastries shaped like skylarks) on this day, because people believed that birds sing at this time to announce the arrival of spring. Forty “skylarks” are prepared in honor of the Forty Martyrs.
Martyrs in the lake shackled by frost, strongly adhering to Holy Faith, by hope illumined, to the dear God, cried out: You, who astonished the world By Your awesome sacrifice and resurrection, O You, enliven us! The firmament of heaven and everything created, glorify You, Behold, the abyss, fire, hail, snow, ice and heat glorify You! You helped the great Moses, your servant, And Joshua Son of Nun, and after that Elisha, That nature, calm the waters and it, to divide, Now, help your faithful as you have until now, Do not allow the frost to be stronger than man, That we, Forty Martyrs, not become the subject of scorn; Oh, You can, if You want, for You rule over all, You, when You want, can change ice into heat and heat into ice; Because of Your Name, the frost consumes us as an angry beast– Oh, help us that the Name of the Almighty may be praised! Martyrs in the lake, shackled by frost, From heaven, by God’s light, were warmed, Gloriously they fell and remained Forty Martyrs To the fear, horror and shame of the darkened unbelievers.