The Martyrdom of the Holy Forty Martyrs
"When the pagan Licinius ruled the eastern half of the Roman Empire (307-323 AD), it was his evil intent to eliminate Christianity from the lands under his control, and especially, for fear of treason, among the troops. One of his supporters was a cruel man by the name of Agricola who commanded the forces in the Armenian town of Sebaste, in what is now eastern Turkey. Among his soldiers were forty devout Christians who wielded equally well the sword of battle and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:17). These men formed an elite bodyguard. When it came to Agricola's attention that they were Christians, he determined to force them to renounce their' faith and bow down to the pagan gods. He gave them two alternatives:
"Either offer sacrifice to the gods and earn great honors, or, in the event of your disobedience, be stripped of your military rank and fall into disgrace."
The soldiers were thrown into jail to think this over. That night they strengthened themselves singing psalms and praying. At midnight they were filled with holy fear upon hearing the voice of the Lord: "Good is the beginning of your resolve, but he who endures to the end will be saved" (Matt. 10:22 ).
The next morning Agrricola summoned them once again. This time he tried to persuade them by flattering words, praising their valor and their handsomeness. When the soldiers remained unmoved, they were again thrown into prison for a week to await the arrival of Licius, a prince of some authority.
During this time they prepared themselves for the trial of martyrdom. One of them, Cyrion by name, exhorted his fellow soldiers:
"God so ordained that we made friends with each other in this temporary life; let us try not to separate even in eternity; just as we have been found plea sing to a mortal king, so let us strive to be worthy of the favor of the immortal King, Christ our God."
Cyrion reminded his comrades in arms how God had miraculously helped them in time of battle and assured them that He would not forsake them now in their battle against the invisible enemy. When Licius arrived, the soldiers marched to the interrogation singing the psalm, "O God, in Thy name save me" (Ps. 53), as they always did when entering upon the field of contest.
Licius repeated Agricola's arguments of persuasion, alternating between threats and flattery. When he saw that words were of no avail, he ordered the soldiers sent to jail while he thought up a form of torture sure to change their minds.
After prayers that night, for a second time the soldiers heard the voice of the Lord:
"He who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live. Be bold and have no fear of short-lived torment which soon passes; endure...that you may receive crowns."
[“When [Licinius] threatened to strip them of their honor as soldiers, one of them, St. Candidus, responded, "Not only the honor of being a soldier, but take away our bodies, for nothing is more dear or honorable, to us than Christ our God." After that, the commander ordered his servants to stone the holy martyrs. While the servants were hurling stones at the Christians, the stones turned and fell back on the servants, severely striking them. One of the stones struck the commander's face and knocked out his teeth.” (http://www.westsrbdio.org/prolog/my.html?day=9&month=March)]
The next day the soldiers were led to a lake. It was winter and a frosty wind was blowing. The soldiers were stripped of their clothes and ordered to stand through the night in the freezing waters. A guard was set to watch over them. In order to tempt the holy warriors of Christ, warm baths were set up on the side of the lake. Anyone who agreed to sacrifice to the idols could flee the bitterly cold waters and warm his frozen bones in the baths. This was a great temptation which in the first cruel hour of the night overpowered one of the soldiers. Scarcely had he reached the baths, however, than he dropped to the ground and died.
Seeing this, the rest of the soldiers prayed the more earnestly to God: "Help us, O God our Saviour, for here we stand in the water and our feet are stained with our blood; ease the burden of our oppression and tame the cruelty of the air; O Lord our God-on Thee do we hope, let us not be ashamed, but let all understand that we who call upon Thee have been saved."
Their prayer was heard. In the third hour of the night a warm light bathed the holy martyrs and melted the ice. By this time all but one of the guards had fallen asleep. The guard who was still awake had been amazed to witness the death of the soldier who had fled to the baths and to see that those in the water were still alive. Now, seeing this extraordinary light, he glanced upward to see where it came from and saw thirty-nine radiant crowns descending onto the heads of the saints, immediately, his heart was enlightened by the knowledge of the Truth. He roused the sleeping guards and, throwing off his clothes, ran into the lake shouting for all to hear, "I am a Christian too!" His name was Aglaius, and he brought the number of martyrs once again to forty.
The next morning the evil judqes came to the lake and were enraged to find that not only were the captives still alive, but that one of the guards had joined them. The martyrs were then taken back to prison and subjected to torture; the bones of their legs were crushed by sledge-hammers. The mother of one of the youngest, Heliton, stood by and encouraged them to endure this trial. To their last breath the martyrs sang out, "Our help is in the name of the Lord," and they all gave up their souls to God. Only Meliton remained alive, though barely breathing.
Taking her dying son upon her shoulders, the mother followed the cart on which the bodies of the soldiers were being taken to be burned. When her son at last gave up his soul, she placed him on the cart with his fellow athletes of Christ.
The funeral-pyre burned out leaving only the martyrs' bones. Knowing that Christians would collect these relics to the eternal glory of the martyrs and their God, the judges ordered them to be thrown into the nearby river. That night, however, the holy martyrs appeared to the blessed bishop [Peter] of Sebaste and told him to recover the bones from the river. Together with some of his clergy, the bishop went secretly that night to the river where the bones of the martyrs shone like stars in the water, enabling them to be collected to the very last fragment. So also do the holy martyrs shine like stars in the world, encouraging and inspiring believers everywhere to be faithful to Christ even to the end.
[For a full account of the finding of the Holy Relics of the Forty Martyrs, see: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/03/discovery-of-relics-of-forty-holy.html.]
Thus they finished the good course of martyrdom in 320, and their names are: Acacius, Aetius, Aglaius, Alexander, Angus, Athanasius, Candidus, Chudion, Claudius, Cyril, Cyrion, Dometian, Domnus, Ecdicius, Elias, Eunoicus, Eutyches, Eutychius, Flavius, Gaius, Gorgonius, Helianus, Herachus, Hesychius, John, Lysimachus, Meliton, Nicholas, Philoctemon, Priscus, Sacerdon, Severian, Sisinius, Smaragdus, Theodulus, Theophilus, Valens, Valerius, Vivianus, and Xanthias."
Excerpt from St. Gregory of Nyssa's Homilies on the Forty Martyrs
"I wish to commemorate one person who spoke of their noble testimony because I am close to Ibora, the village and resting place of these forty martyrs' remains. Here the Romans keep a register of soldiers, one of whom was a guard ordered by his commander to protect against invasions, a practice common to soldiers in such remote areas. This man suffered from an injured foot which was later amputated. Being in the martyrs' resting place, he earnestly beseeched God and the intercession of the saints. One night there appeared a man of venerable appearance in the company of others who said, "Oh soldier, do you want to be healed [J.167] of your infirmity? Give me your foot that I may touch it." When he awoke from the dream, his foot was completely healed. Once he awoke from this vision, his foot was restored to health. He roused the other sleeping men because he was immediately cured and made whole. This men then began to proclaim the miracle performed by the martyrs and acknowledged the kindness bestowed by these fellow soldiers.
I will now speak of an important matter which concerns me. At one time we were observing the first feast day when the cinerary urn containing [the martyrs] remains was transferred to a church. When I was young, my mother [M.785] (for her life in God wonderfully adorned this feast day) asked me to participate in the celebration. Although I was not present and counted among the congregation, she urged me even though I was occupied and failed to comprehend her request. I therefore did not delay to attend this feast and put aside my numerous concerns before attending the synod. At the time I was keeping watch at night in the garden where people honored the saints' remains by reciting psalms. A vision then appeared behind those who were sleeping and seemed to enter the garden where the night watch was posted. When I approached the gate, a multitude of soldiers stationed at the entrance rose up, brandished their weapons in a threatening manner and prevented anyone from entering. They beat me with the exception of one who appeared more human and then fled. When I woke up and realized that I abandoned my calling, [J.168], I understood what this fearful vision of soldiers had wanted and shed many tears in my perplexity. I bitterly wept over the saints' urn that God pardon me and that the holy soldiers forgive my insensibility.
I have mentioned this for the purpose of strengthening our faith because the martyrs are alive; they are our bodyguards and companions who even today serve and adorn the Church. The tessarakoste [40th day or observance of the martyrs' feast] of the forty martyrs is a splendid, renowned feast which celebrates their memory and is of greater importance than other monthly feasts. The hardship of winter is thus no longer severe, nor do I bitterly complain of its ferocity. Instead, it has become an occasion to recall their persecution and serves as a holy phalanx. Similarly, the mother of the seven Maccabeans (cf. 2Mac 7.1+) loved God with her soul instead of her body and did not reproach the cruel tyrant of Antioch in Syria. She courageously bore the punishment leveled against her sons (She was well disposed towards this desolation and considered her bereavement as a support). She suffered, for example, when Stephen was stoned (Acts 7.1+) but saw that he was brought to life. Thus we should receive mercy from these combatants of God who come to our help because they enabled us to become not only instruments of doing good but by engaging in combat. Our enemies do good when they are hostile and thereby cause no dishonor. The devil assists Job instead of harming him (Job 1+); the king of the Assyrians helps Daniel (Dan 3.1+); the three youths in the furnace profess God's grace (Dan 3.24); Isaiah praises the Hebrews when he was sawed in half (cf. Heb 11.37); Zachariah blessed his murderers [J.169] while standing between the temple and altar of incense (Mat 23.35-7); John proclaimed God's help when Herod beheaded him (Mat 14.1+); the Apostles [blessed] those who bound and persecuted them; all the martyrs loved [M.788] their persecutors and could not hold fast unless these athletes maintained their courage.
What greater love do we have than this faithful multitude of witnesses who displayed fortitude and unanimity? Let us neither be insensitive nor ungrateful towards them. With intercessors like these, we never lack their prayers and entreaties. The witness of their trust and hope is God when he spoke with Abraham. Abraham interceded with God not to destroy the city if he found ten just men in Sodom, not simply forty (Gen 18.32). We, like the Apostle, have a great cloud of witnesses and pronounce blessed those who rejoice in hope, persist in prayer, and recall the saints (Heb 12.1). The forty martyrs are powerful opponents against our enemies and worthy advocates before the Lord. Let a Christian depend upon their hope, resist the devil's temptations, rise against evil men and the seething wrath of tyrants which resembles the sea's ferocity. They should also be unconcerned with earthly matters which occupy most people, including any assistance which comes from the sky (cf. Gen 1.29-30). The bountiful grace of Christ is sufficient for every necessity and circumstances, to whom we should attribute all glory forever and ever. Amen."
Short Excerpt from St. Basil the Great's Homily on the Forty Martyrs
"O sainted band! O sacred fraternity! O invincible army! protectors of the human race, solace of the troubled, hope of your petitioners, most powerful intercessors, light of the world, bloom both intellectual and material of the Churches! The earth has not hidden you from sight, heaven has received you. May its gates be opened to you. The spectacle is worthy of angels and patriarchs, prophets, and just."
(http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/johndamascus-images.html; full Greek text available here: http://users.uoa.gr/~nektar/orthodoxy/paterikon/basil_the_great_homilia_40_martyrs.htm)
For a sermon by St. Theodore the Studite on the Holy Forty Martyrs, see: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/03/sermon-for-feast-of-forty-holy-martyrs.html.
For more on the Forty Martyrs and the Monastery of Xeropotamou on Mount Athos, along with two miracles, see: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/03/xeropotamou-monastery-and-forty-holy.html.
Stichera Idiomela of the Forty Martyrs in Tone 2
by John the Monk
The holy Martyrs threw their clothes aside; fearlessly they entered the lake and encouraged one another: “Remember that our fallen nature has been deprived of Paradise! Let us care nothing for our corruptible flesh today! The serpent once deceived us, handing over our bodies to death; now let us win Resurrection for all! Let us scorn the ice and cold; let us hate our flesh, and Christ will crown us with the laurel of victory! He is our God and the Savior of our souls.
The holy Martyrs accepted their torments with joy. They hurried to the frozen lake as to a comforting bath. They said: “We will not fear the bitter cold. Only let us escape Gehenna's flames! Let a foot be burned, that it may rejoice eternally! Let a hand be lost, offered to the Lord in sacrifice! Let us not refuse death in the flesh! Embrace death, and Christ will crown us with the laurel of victory! He is our God, and the Savior of our souls.
The holy Martyrs bravely endured their present suffering; they rejoiced in things hoped for but not yet seen. They said to each other: “By stripping off our garments we have put off the old man. The winter is cold and bitter, but Paradise will be warm and sweet. The freezing is painful, but the reward will bring us joy. Let us not be defeated, O brothers! We suffer a little, but Christ will crown us with the laurel of victory. He is our God and the Savior of our souls.