We have heard the term “martyr” used often in the news lately. Many cultures and religions have a definition of this term – and many of these are completely foreign to the Christian understanding of martyrdom.
From the witness of the Holy Innocents, who were martyred for being in the same country as our Lord at the time of his Nativity, to that of St. Stephen, who was murdered attempting to explain Christ as the longed-for messiah, to that of tens of thousands of others through the centuries who have been given the crown of victory – we have been provided with examples of what it means to be a Christian martyr.
On March 10, we celebrate the victory over evil of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste, a group of Roman soldiers whose “courage under fire” led them to their deaths in the year 320. The soldiers were Christians, members of the “Thundering Legion”, who were noted for bravery in battle and depended upon by the Emperor for defense of the Empire. The soldiers were stationed in Armenia, near Lake Sevastia.
When Licinius, ruler of the Eastern part of the Empire, began a persecution of Christians (against Constantine’s Edict of Milan, which he had agreed to honor) he expected Christians to renounce their faith as a show of patriotism and a test of loyalty to the state. He probably did not expect that heretofore loyal soldiers would “fail” the test!
The saints in Sebaste refused to bow to the idols of the state and for that, they were threatened with numerous consequences. Appeals to their honor did not work – they honored a higher God. Threats of torture did not work – they had endured much physical hardship defending a worldly kingdom and would endure more for a heavenly one. The threat of death did not dissuade them – eternal life with Christ awaited them if they kept the faith.
As a last effort, the local governor devised a plan which he thought would slowly bring the soldiers “back to their senses”: he had them stripped naked, bound, and made to stand in the icy water of Lake Sevastia as night began to fall. Bonfires and a warming bath were set up on the shore. But as the temperature fell and the water – and the men’s bodies – began to freeze, the true bravery of the saints was displayed. They remained steadfast, praying and singing hymns and encouraging one another. Only one of the 40 gave way and crawled to the shore for warmth, only to die there, having given up the martyr’s role. His place was taken by one of the heathen guards who was so moved by the strength of the saints’ faith that he desired to become a Christian also and share in their martyrdom.
Contemporary accounts tell of the last words and testament of these saints. The story of their martyrdom spread throughout the land and served as a powerful witness to the strength of Christian conviction. Their story reminds us today that Christian martyrs do not kill for their cause, nor do they commit suicide, but that they are willing to die rather than deny Christ and that they will give up the comforts and loyalties of this world to uphold the truth of the risen Christ.