The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste
(The following is excerpted from the 10 March entry in Volume IV of the 1983 Marian House edition of the English translation of Dom Prosper Guéranger's 'The Liturgical Year' by the Benedictines of Stanbrook.)
"...On the frozen pool, which was their field of battle, these martyrs reminded one another that Jesus had fasted for forty days, and that they themselves were forty in number! Let us, in our turn, compare their sufferings with the lenten exercises which the Church imposes on us; and humble ourselves on seeing our cowardice; or, if we begin with fevour, let us remember that the grand thing is to be faithful to the end, and bring to the Easter solemnity the crown of our perseverance. Our forty martyrs patiently endured the cruellest tortures; the fear of God, and their deep-rooted conviction that He had an infinite claim to their fidelity, gave them the victory....The lives of the saints will be of great help to us...for they will teach us how we are to look upon sin, how to avoid it, and how strictly we are bound to do penance for it after having committed it."
"The Church, in her liturgy, thus relates to us the martyrdom of the soldiers of Sebaste."
the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste,
During the reign of the Emperor Licinus, and under the presidency of Agricolaus, the city of Sebaste in in Armenia was honored by being made the scene of the martyrdom of forty [Roman] soldiers, whose faith in Jesus Christ, and patience in bearing tortures, were so glorious. After having been frequently confined in a horrid dungeon, shackled with chains, and having had their faces beaten with stones, they were condemned to pass a most bitter winter night in the open air, and on a frozen pool, that they might be frozen to death. When there, they united in this prayer: 'Forty have we entered on the battle; let us, O Lord, receive forty crowns, and suffer not our number to be broken. The number is an honoured one, for thou didst fast for forty days, and the divine law was given to the world after the same number of days was observed. Elias [Elijah], too, sought God by a forty days' fast, and was permitted to see him.' Thus did they pray.
All the guards, except one, were asleep. He overheard their prayer, and saw them encircled with light, and angels coming down from heaven, like messengers sent by a King, who distributed crowns to thirty-nine of the soldiers. Whereupon, he thus said to himself: 'There are forty men: where is the fortieth crown?' While he was thus pondering one of the number lost his courage; he could bear the cold no longer, and threw himself into a warm bath, which had been placed near at hand. His saintly companions were exceedingly grieved at this. But God would not suffer their prayer to be void. The sentinel, astonished at what he had witnessed, went immediately and awoke the guards; then, taking off his garments, he cried out, with a loud voice, that he was Christian, and associated himself with the martyrs. No sooner did the governor's guards perceive that the sentinel had also declared himself to be a Christian, than they approached the martyrs and broke their legs with clubs.
All died under this torture except Melithon, who was the youngest of the forty. His mother, who was present, seeing that he was still living after his legs were broken, thus encouraged him: 'My son, be patient yet a while. Lo! Christ is at the door, helping thee,' But, as soon as she saw the other bodies being placed on carts, that they might be thrown on the pile, and her son left behind (for the impious men hoped that, if the boy survived, he might be induced to worship the idols), she lifted him up into her arms, and, summing up all her strength, ran after the waggons, on which the martyrs' bodies were being carried. Melithon died in his mother's arms, and the holy woman threw his body on the pile, where the other martyrs were, that as he had been so united with them in faith and courage, he might be one with them in burial, and go to heaven in their company. As soon as the bodies were burnt, the pagans threw what remained into a river. The relics miraculously flowed to one and the same place, just as they were when they were taken from the pile. The Christians took them, and respectfully buried them.
"...Valiant soldiers of Christ...receive the homage of our devotion. Your memory is venerated throughout the whole Church, and your glory is great in heaven. Though engaged in the service of an earthly prince, you were the soldiers of the eternal King: to Him were you faithful, and from Him did you receive your crown of eternal glory. We, also, are His soldiers; we are fighting for the kingdom of heaven. Our enemies are many and powerful; but, like you, we can conquer them, if, like you, we use the arms which God has put in our hands. Faith in God's word, hope in His assistance, humility, and prudence, with these we are sure of victory. Pray for us, O holy martyrs, that we may avoid all compromise with our enemies; for our defeat is certain, if we try to serve two masters...come to our assistance, and get us a share in your brave spirit. A crown is also prepared for us: it is to be won on easier terms than yours; and yet we shall lose it, unless we keep up within us an esteem for our vocation. How many times, in our past lives, have we forfeited that glorious crown! But God, in His mercy, has offered it to us again, and we are resolved on winning it. Oh, for the glory of our common Lord and Master, make intercession for us."