Preached at the PreSanctified Liturgy on March, 9, 2007 at St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Christian Mission in Baton Rouge, LA.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be! I don’t make it a habit of preaching at the PreSanctified Liturgy. The hymns, the service itself, in the middle of our Lenten struggles, is often enough of a homily. But since you are only able to have a priest here once a month, and since this is the Feast of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, I think it would be nice for us to hear the story of the Holy Martyrs. During this period of Great and Holy Lent, the stories of the martyrs have so much more meaning for those of us living outside the times of Christian persecution. As we’re struggling to die to our own will and desires, the lives of those who died physically for Christ take on a deeper meaning. Instead of just being an inspiring story, we can relate to the sacrifice and struggle to die for Christ—it’s not a simple matter to give up one’s life, even Christ asked if the cup could pass from Him—we can actually relate to the sacrifice of the martyrs if we’re living a life of martyrdom. If we are giving up our lives, giving up our will, and taking on the will of another, taking on the mind of Christ. Then we share in the lives of the martyrs, and we can read them as ones who suffer together with them for Christ.

The 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste lived during the reign of Constantine the Great. A large army was being prepared by Licinius, who was the co-ruler of the Byzantine empire with Constantine. This army was being prepared to attack Constantine so that Licinius could have the empire for himself. St. Constantine, of course, was a Christian. But Licinius was pagan. So as he was putting his army together, he decided to remove all Christians from the army just in case they decided to rebel and fight for their fellow Christian. Under his command, there happened to be an entire company of 40 soldiers in Sebaste who were all Christians from Cappadocia. When these Christian soldiers refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, they were locked up in prison. That night they occupied themselves with prayer and psalmody, and during the night they heard a voice saying, “Persevere until the end, then you shall be saved.” The military commanders offered them all sorts of money and gifts and rank if they would renounce Christ and offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. But they continued to refuse. Seven days later, they were finally put on trial. They told the judge, “Take not only our military insignia, but also our lives, since nothing is more precious to us than Christ God.” They were found guilty and sent to be stoned. But the stones wouldn’t hit the Christian soldiers—some of them fell to the ground, others turned back in midair to hit the people that threw them, and some even hit other soldiers. So the executioners realized that the soldiers were protected by a strange power. They were put back in prison, and that night they heard a voice saying, “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live (John 11:25). Be brave and fear not, for you shall obtain imperishable crowns.” Christ was preparing them for martyrdom. The next day the soldiers again had the chance to forsake Christ, but they wouldn’t. It was winter in Sebaste, and there was a severe frost. So for the next attempt at execution, the soldiers were taken to a frozen lake, and placed out in the middle of the lake, to freeze. To try and tempt the soldiers to give up Christ, warm baths were put around the lake, with people in them warming and bathing and having a good time. One of the soldiers did, in fact, decide to leave the frozen lake and get into one of the baths as the cold of the night became unbearable, but he fell dead before he could get into the warm water. During the third hour of the night, the Lord sent consolation to the martyrs. Suddenly there was light, the ice melted away, and the water in the lake became warm. All the guards were asleep, except for one, whose name was Aglaius. He looked at the lake and saw that a radiant crown had appeared over the head of each martyr. He counted thirty-nine crowns and realized that the soldier who fled had lost his crown. He then woke up the other guards, took off his uniform and said to them, “I too am a Christian,” and he joined the martyrs on the frozen lake. Standing in the water he prayed to the God of the Holy Martyrs, “Lord God, I believe in You, the One in Whom these soldiers believe. Add me to their number, and make me worthy to suffer with Your servants.” Then a fortieth crown appeared over his head. In the morning, the torturers saw with surprise that the martyrs were still alive, and their guard Aglaius was glorifying Christ together with them. So the soldiers were led out of the water and their legs were broken. And then they were burned alive. And in the fire the Holy Martyrs finally gave up their souls to God. The burned remains were thrown into the water so that the Christians couldn’t gather up the remains of the holy martyrs. Three days later the martyrs appeared in a dream to St Peter, Bishop of Sebaste, and asked him to bury their remains. So the bishop together with several clergy retrieved the relics of the glorious martyrs by night and buried them with honor. As we continue to try and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to the Lord, let us be encouraged by the faithfulness of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste, clinging to the one thing needful—our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ. To Whom is due glory, together with His Father, Who is without beginning, and His Most Holy Good and Life-Creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

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