The forty glorious martyrs whom the Church glorifies today had separate bodies, but they had, as it were, a single soul in concord and unanimity of unshakable faith. As the psalmist David sings: «Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity» (Ps. 133:1). They showed the world an example of perseverance and patience and, having overcome all trials and torments, were honoured with equal crowns of glory for their common feat.
In the 4th century godless and wicked ruler of the Armenian city of Sebasteia initiated a cruel persecution of Christians, forcing them to offer sacrifices to idols. Those who refused were subjected to various tortures – fire, sword, crucifixion, burying alive in the ground, wheeling, beating with whips, planing with sharp iron, scorching by fire and other torments. Under the threat of these tortures, some fled to deserted places, others were indecisive, while still others, struck by the horror of brutal torture, submitted to the torturers and sacrificed to idols.
At that time, in the city of Sebasteia, there were forty soldiers in the ranks of the fighting regiments, who made up a particularly honourable squad of pious associates who believed in Christ. In military affairs they were distinguished by strength and courage. When they were forced to sacrifice to idols, those invincible and steadfast soldiers of Christ boldly and fearlessly announced themselves to be Christians. Each of them came out before the wicked ruler and said: “I am a Christian!” – that, as it were, he substituted for his own name, calling himself with the common name of the Saviour.
The ruler tried to bribe the soldiers with flattery, saying: “Do not give away your youth in vain, do not exchange this sweet life for an untimely death.” He promised them money, ranks and royal honours. But the staunch confessors did not succumb to flattering tricks, saying: “We hate the gift that entails harm to the soul; we do not accept honour, which is the mother of dishonour. We desire only one gift – a crown of righteousness; we strive for one glory – for glory in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Upon hearing these words, the proud and cruel ruler ordered to lock up the confessors into a prison, where in the night prayer they heard the comforting voice of the Lord: «He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live» (John 11:25) and «he who endures to the end will be saved» (Matt. 10:22). The next day they sentenced the martyrs to stoning, but the stones thrown at them flew past or struck the torturers. Seeing that miracle, the martyrs became even more strengthened in audacity in the Lord and said: “Do with us whatever you want; we are Christians and do not agree to worship idols.” Then the tormentor, filled with rage, ordered to bind the holy soldiers and lead them to the lake. It was winter time, there was a cold, and a piercing wind was blowing.
Saint Basil the Great, in his “Word for the Commemoration of the Holy Fourty Martyrs,” describes the pangs of the cold as follows: “No doubt, you, who experienced the winter cold, know how unbearable this kind of torment is. A body exposed to cold, at first turns all blue from the shrinking of the blood; then it trembles and shakes, while the teeth chatter, the veins pull together, and the whole composition involuntarily pulls together. Severe pain and inexpressible torment produce an intolerable sensation of cold in those who freeze.”
So, the holy warriors were placed naked on the ice in the middle of the lake for the whole night under guard. As st. Basil the Great writes: “Each one joyfully threw off his last tunic, and all rushed towards death, with which the cold threatened, encouraging each other: “We do not throw off our clothes,” they said, “but «put off the former way of life in the old nature, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts» (Eph. 4:22). Winter is cruel, but paradise is sweet. We will endure for a short time, and the patriarch’s bosom will warm us. One night we will trade for a whole age.”
In order to seduce the holy martyrs, to weaken their firmness, a steam bath was heated on the shore of the lake. In the middle of the night, when the cold reached extreme severity, one of the fourty could not stand the torment and ran to the bathhouse. But, as soon as he stepped on its threshold and barely felt the warmth, he fell down dead. At that time one of the guards who watched over the martyrs, by the name of Aglaios, saw an extraordinary vision – crowns descended from heaven onto the head of each of the 39 ascetics as a great gift of honour from the Heavenly King. And the fortieth crown started to rise back to heaven. Then soldier Aglaios realized that the one who had fled to the bathhouse had lost his crown, had lost the opportunity to join the assembly of saints. Having understood that wondrous vision, Aglaios immediately took off his clothes and ran into the lake, exclaiming: “I am also a Christian!” Thus, he himself made up for the number of the fourty holy martyrs and became a participant in their glory. Just as the worker in the Gospel parable of the vineyard received an equal pay for his labour with those who had come to work before him, so the good ascetic Aglaios received the imperishable crown of the martyr, joining those who had already received that priceless heavenly gift.
The next morning, the wicked tormentor was surprised to see that the holy warriors were still alive and, filled with rage, ordered to break their legs with hammers, put their bodies on fire, and throw the ashes into the river. The mother of one of the holy martyrs, seeing that her son remained alive after so many tortures due to his physical strength and that the torturers left him in the hope that he would live and change his confession, did not shed tears of faint-heartedness, but said: “Go, son, into this good journey with peers and comrades, do not lag behind this assembly, appear before the Lord no later than the others.” And the valiant mother carried her son after the chariot, on which they carried the bodies of the holy martyrs to be burned. Thus the pious mother, rejecting her inherent feminine weakness and inspired by courage, set for all mothers an example of true love, which endures everything for the sake gaining the eternal life of the immortal soul by her child.
In that way the devil was put to shame by the valour of the passion-bearers, for, having raised all his strength on them, he was defeated by their unyielding steadfastness and firm faith. Holy Hierarch Basil the Great, ending his eulogy to the forty martyrs, writes: “Holy assembly! Sacred squad! Unwavering regiment! Not the earth hid you, but heaven accepted, the gates of paradise were opened to you. Being in the age most full of life, you have regarded temporary life as nothing in order to glorify God in your bodies, becoming the glory «to the world, to angels and to men» (1 Cor. 4:9). You have raised up the fallen, strengthened the wavering, increased the zeal in the godly. All, having erected one victorious monument for piety, were adorned with one crown of righteousness in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
Let us, brothers and sisters, be strengthened by the example of the forty martyrs and, looking at their feat of faith, let us go through the forty days of the Great Lent, as forty martyrs walked their way of the cross, unabated in trials. And through their holy prayer let us be honoured to enter the paradisal abodes of the Heavenly Kingdom, in which may the Lord help us, glory to Him, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages, amen!