The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

Anyone wandering about near a freezing cold pond one night near the city of Sebaste in the year 320 would have seen an astounding sight: forty Roman soldiers, all members of the so-called “Thundering Legion”, were standing together naked in the icy waters throughout the night as they slowly froze to death. They were guarded by other Roman soldiers on the shore, who made sure that the condemned men remained in the freezing waters, and also kept a warm bathhouse ready to receive any of them who decided they wanted to leave the waters of death, warm up, and survive. All they had to do was to deny Christ and renounce their Christian Faith. All forty of them were devout Christians, and they chose to die rather than deny their Lord.

One of them, however, lost his courage at the last moment. He renounced Christ, and left his companions for the warmth of the waiting bathhouse. One of the guards, overwhelmed at the constancy of those remaining in the pond, confessed himself a Christian, threw off his clothes and joined them in the water, so that the number of the forty martyrs remained complete. Daybreak found most of the men dead and stiff with cold. Those who still showed signs of life were killed, burned, and their ashes thrown into the river.

We may ask: what strengthened the men as they remained in the icy waters of death and as life slowly drained from their bodies? Two things: they looked past the horrors of that night to the lighted Kingdom and the crowns of glory awaiting them, and they looked to each other for solidarity and support. As soldiers they knew the importance of loyalty to their military unit, and like a band of brothers, they knew each must remain steadfast for the sake of the others. This soldierly unity sustained them—it was a matter of honour that none of them break rank and betray the others.

Handpainted icon of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste created at St. Elisabeth Convent

We also live in a time of deadly winter, when multiplied wickedness causes men’s hearts to grow cold (Matthew 24:12). The rulers of this age promise earthly reward to those who will abandon the truth, and a warm bathhouse stands ready to receive the apostates. The martyrs of Sebaste encourage us to stand firm in our faith despite the coldness of the age and whatever persecution may befall us, for after only a few hours, they were received with triumphant joy in the warm halls of heaven, and had no need of any Roman bathhouse. It will be the same with us also: soon enough this cold age will pass away, and we will stand with them before our King. Until then, we too take courage from the fact that we are not alone in our suffering for the truth. We resist the compromises urged by the devil, and remain firm in our faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of others of our brotherhood throughout the world (1 Peter 5:9).

One last thing: the soldier whose courage broke and who apostasized and ran into the warm bathhouse did not survive the night. Doubtless his core temperature had already dropped too much, and not even the heat of the bathhouse could save him. He died anyway, along with the rest of the Thundering Legion. By his apostasy he did not save his earthly life, but only forfeited his eternal life and the crown which was within his reach. The rewards for apostasy do not last, but end with the coming of the eternal day. The reward for perseverance lasts forever.


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