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The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste; ivory relief panel; Constantinople, 10th century AD.
St. Basil tells the story of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste who’s feast day is Saturday. Their death occurred in the year 313 during one of the many persecutions of Christians.
According to Basil, these martyrs were Roman soldiers who refused to renounce their faith, so they were stripped naked and led out onto a frozen pond. Nearby, a hot bath was setup as a temptation and the naked soldiers were told that if they renounced, they would be brought to the bath and allowed to warm and return to the ranks. Of the forty, one renounced (he dropped dead immediately after crossing the threshold of the bath); however, one of the soldiers sent to guard them, Aggias, saw a miraculous sight: a brilliant glowing crown appeared over the heads of the thirty-nine who remained. Seeing this, he understood that it was God, so waking the other guards, he stripped his clothes off and said to them, “I too am a Christian,” then 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.” Immediately, the fortieth crown appeared over Aggias and he froze to death with the others.
Now, our saint for today, Gregory of Nyssa, some fifty years later was planning a hiking/camping trip with some of his friends, but his mother convinced him to stay the night and attend the celebration of these Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. He was a Christian and agreed. The service began at sundown and it was long. As it was the beginning of summer and there were many people crowded into the church, it became very warm and Gregory became drowsy and eventually fell asleep and dreamed. He dreamed that he was still in the church, but that it was empty, when suddenly the doors of the church opened and forty naked men who were blue, as from the cold, came walking in, each carrying a wooden rod. As these men began to surround him, Gregory understood who they were – the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste who had frozen to death. After they had gathered around, they began to beat him with the rods and shouted at him:
“We died for love of Christ,” said one of the men. The voice was dull and hollow, filled with sorrow.
“You sleep through the prayers to God,” said another.
“Wake and give thanks that you may pray in peace, unafraid of the torment we suffered gladly,” said a third.
“Give glory to the Maker of all, and remember our example. Give your life to God, live for him and serve him all the days you live and breathe!” exclaimed another.
“I will, I will!” Gregory cried. “Stop, please. I will serve God, I will keep your memory fresh and I will honour you all my life for your steadfast faith!”
The men stopped beating him, vanished, and then Gregory woke up, back in the church with the service still going. Let’s just say that he rejoined the celebration with a renewed fervency and went onto serve God faithfully as he had promised.
We can let Gregory be a reminder to us that we should not become bored or complacent in our faith and in our worship. We must not take our freedom to worship for granted, because in doing so, we take God for granted.
Jesus said, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Allow that same Spirit to fill you with a holy fire and then worship Him with a renewed zeal.