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40 Martyrs: The standard of dedication

We know about the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste from a writing of Basil of Caesarea (330-379) known as the “Homily of the Forty Martyrs.” The sermon is too long to reprint here, so the following is a summary with quote.

The Emperor Lucinius (emperor from 307 to 323) decided that everyone should worship him. This was a supposedly a common practice, but he wanted to enforce it. Forty soldiers, all Christians, did not comply and so defied the order before the local governor. I pick up from the midst of Basil’s homily from


What then was the governor to do? . . . At first he wished to charm them with flatteries, thus attempting to weaken the power of their piety. He said: “Do not cast your youth away; do not exchange this sweet life for an untimely death. To him whose wont it is to be distinguished in valor during battle it is unbecoming to suffer the death of a [traitor].” Moreover, he promised them money. . . . Seeing that they did not succumb to such temptations, he resorted to another kind of guile: he put them in fear of torments, of death, and of trial by the most unbearable tortures.

Thus did he act. But what of the Martyrs? They reply: “Why, O enemy of God, do you entice us by laying these good things before us as snares, so that we might fall away from the Living God?” [And they refused.]

When he heard these things . . . he came upon the means, and behold how cruel his [judgment] was! Having considered the climate of that land, for it was bleak, and the season of year, for it was winter, he observed that during the nighttime the chill attained its highest intensity, and moreover that a northerly wind then blew: therefore he gave the command that they all be left naked in the open air in the midst of the city, and thus being frozen, they should die.

Thus it was that they were sentenced to spend the night under the open sky. The lake, round about which the populous town lies and in which the Saints contested, was covered with ice and had become, as it were, solid land fit for chariot driving.

[They then stripped themselves and went onto the ice. The governor ordered a pot of warm water to be placed at the edge of the ice in order to entice any to rebuke his faith and save his life. One of the Forty did leave the company and attempted to save his life by going to the warm water.]

What a sad sight for the righteous ones! A warrior becomes a deserter . . . [yet one of the soldiers by the water] throwing off his raiment, he joined himself to the naked ones, crying out in unison with the Saints: “I am a Christian.” The bystanders were astonished at the unexpectedness of his conversion.

[So, even in the last hours of their lives, the example of the faithful Thirty-nine introduced one other to Jesus].

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