Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Feast of the Forty Martyrs

The Forty Martyrs were a group of soldiers from the Roman Twelfth Legion, who died for the Faith at Sebaste in Armenia in the year 320. This was seven years after the Edict of Milan and the Peace granted to the Church by Constantine, whose brother-in-law Licinius at that point ruled in the East, and after a period of tolerance, renewed the persecution of Christians. When the Forty had been called to renounce the Faith and refused, they were sentenced first to various tortures, and then condemned to die a particularly horrible death, stripped naked and left to freeze on the ice of a frozen lake. The governor who supervised this execution ordered that a hot bath be prepared at the edge of the lake, by which any one of them who would apostatize might save himself from freezing to death.

A 10-century ivory relief icon of the Forty Martyrs, made in Constantinople, now in the Bodemuseum in Berlin. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The Breviary of St Pius V represents the martyrs praying as their sufferings began, “Forty we have entered into the stadium, let us receive forty crowns, o Lord, lest even one be lacking from this number. This number is held in honor. You adorned it with a fast of forty days; through it the divine Law entered into the world. Elijah, seeking God, obtained the vision of Him by a fast of forty days.” This is a very ancient motif, by which the fast of forty days observed in the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) is associated with that observed in the Gospel by Christ. (For this reason, on the first Sunday of Lent the Roman Rite reads the account of Christ’s fast, and on the second, that of His Transfiguration, at which the Moses and Elijah appear as witnesses to the divinity of Christ. On the Ember Wednesday between them, there are two readings before the Gospel, Exodus 24, 12-18, which tells of the forty day fast of Moses, and 3 Kings 19, 3-8, the forty day fast of Elijah.)

One of the forty, however, did abandon the company and enter the hot bath; in some accounts it is said that he died immediately from the shock. In the meantime, one of their guards had a vision of Angels descending upon the martyrs, bearing thirty-nine crowns; he was inspired by this to become a Christian, take the place of the one who had left, and so fulfill the mystical number of forty. Seeing the martyrs’ constancy, those who were in charge of their execution decided to finish them off by breaking their legs, as was done to the thieves crucified alongside the Lord. Only one of them did not die from this, a young man named Melito, but he was mortally wounded and could not live. His own mother then carried him to the place where the rest of them were taken to be cremated, walking behind the wagon; during the journey he died in her arms, and was laid by her on the pyre among the bodies of his comrades.

Their ashes were scattered to prevent the veneration of their relics, but the Christians were able to recover some of them. St Basil the Great tells of the presence of the relics at Caesarea; his brother, St Gregory of Nyssa, says that their parents, Ss Basil the Elder and Emmelia, were buried in a church at a place called Annesis, which they themselves had built, and for which they had obtained some relics of the Forty. Portions of them were later taken to Constantinople and elsewhere, and devotion to them was brought to the West by St Gaudentius of Brescia, who received a part of the relics from St Basil’s nieces while passing through Caesarea on his way to Jerusalem.

The iconostasis of the Chapel of the Forty Martyrs in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Deror Avi, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Their feast was originally kept in the West on March 9, the same day it still has in the East. St Frances of Rome died on that day in 1440; when she was canonized in 1608 (together with St Charles Borromeo), she was assigned to that day, and the martyrs moved forward to the 10th. In the rubrical reform of 1960, ferias of Lent were given precedence over the majority of feasts, and the Forty were permanently reduced to a commemoration, since March 10th cannot occur outside Lent; notwithstanding the great veneration in which they are held in the East, and the antiquity of the feast, it was abolished from the calendar of the Novus Ordo.

In the Byzantine Rite, they are held in great veneration, and certain features of the liturgy which are reserved for the more important Saints are included on their day. The very strict Lenten fast is relaxed, so that wine and oil may be consumed. A Gospel is read at Orthros, John 15, 17 - 16, 2, in which Christ speaks of Himself as the model of martyrdom, and the martyr as the most perfect imitator of Him. “If the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you. If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. ... If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you: if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also. ... Yea, the hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you, will think that he doth a service to God.”

If the Vespers of the Presanctified Gifts are celebrated, an Epistle and Gospel are added to the rite, sung as they would be at the Divine Liturgy. The Gospel is that which the Roman Rite reads on Septuagesima Sunday, Matthew 20, 1-16, the parable of the workmen in the vineyard; this was clearly chosen in reference to the guard who joined the martyrs at the last minute, and received the same crown with the rest of the company, just as the workmen who came at the eleventh hour received the same wage as the rest.

In the annals of Christian hagiography, there are many stories of people who were spontaneously converted to the Faith by seeing the constancy of the martyrs in the midst of their torments; it is not rare for such persons to become martyrs themselves, even joining the suffering Christians of their own will right on the spot, like the guard among the Forty. This phenomenon was realized again three years ago in the person of one Matthew Ayariga, a Ghanaian who was seized in Libya by Islamic fanatics, along with a group of twenty Egyptian Copts. Although he was not a member of the Coptic Church, he refused to embrace Islam, even at the threat of being beheaded; seeing how the others prayed and called upon the Holy Name of Jesus as they died, he said of them, “Their God is my God,” and was slain in their company.
An icon of the New Martyrs of Libya, by Tony Rezk. Matthew Ayariga is represented in the middle of the group. 
These twenty-one men were canonized as martyrs by the Coptic Pope Tawadros II very shortly after their death; quite recently, a church named in their honor was dedicated in the village of Al-Our, Egypt, where thirteen of them came from, on the third anniversary of the martyrdom. In the following video, members of the martyrs’ families give exemplary testimonies of true Christian forgiveness, speaking not of anger, hatred or vengeance, but rather of the joy and pride which they take in their Sainted relatives. (It should be remembered that these men were all fairly young, and working construction jobs abroad to provide for their families.) “And God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor shall sorrow be any more, for the former things are passed away.”


This article is a revised version of one that was originally published in 2015.

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