Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebastia
During the 4th century, the period when Christianity began to spread, conflicts still arose between those who boldly embraced their new faith and those pagan emperors who persecuted them. The Holy Martyrs of Sebastia, according to legend, were a group of exceptionally brave soldiers who came from families of nobility and stood firm in their Christian faith. They formed a part of the Roman army and served in the regions of Cappadocia. It is said that they came from various cities of Lesser Armenia (Pokhr Haik), and that some of them were assumed to be Armenian.
The Roman emperor during that time, Licinius, had expanded his anti-Christian crusade and demanded that any Christians in the army would have to return to the pagan faith or be killed. It was soon discovered that in Sebastia that an elite military unit of soldiers was Christian. These forty youth were brought before the judge of the region and questioned. The soldiers confirmed that they were, indeed, Christians. Unafraid, they asserted that they were loyal to the emperor as evidenced by their success as soldiers, but that they also bore allegiance to their heavenly king and held fast to their Christian beliefs.
Despite attempts by Duke Liucias of Caesarea, who went personally to urge the young soldiers to abide by the king’s orders, the youth refused to obey. Because his reputation and eminence were at stake, the duke was forced to impose severe punishment on the young soldiers. He ordered the stoning of the soldiers, thus silencing those who persistently defended their Christian faith. However, as the duke himself hurled the first stone, a miraculous thing happened. The stone, instead of reaching its intended target, flew in exactly the opposite direction and wounded the judge’s face. When the security guards also started throwing stones, they, too, were unable to harm the young Christian soldiers. Instead, their stones struck themselves.
After this terrifying experience, the Duke ordered the death of the resistant youth in an extremely brutal manner. During a freezing winter night, he ordered the young men be taken nude to the lake near the city and spend the night in the frozen waters. Only if the soldiers renounced their faith and became pagans would they be able to be spared. One of the forty soldiers broke away and abandoned his Christian faith; the remaining 39 froze to death.
A second miraculous event occurred that night. Bright halos appeared and rested above the soldiers’ heads, illuminating the area and causing great confusion among the guards. Moved by the experience, one of the guards declared himself a Christian and threw himself into the lake with the other martyred soldiers, bringing the number to 40 again. At dawn, their bodies were removed from the lake and taken away to be cremated, and their ashes were thrown into the river. The Bishop of Sebastia had secretly arranged for the remains of the martyrs to be brought back to him in an effort to bring comfort and consolation to the families of the soldiers.
This significant event, which had far-reaching effects on the people of the region because of its barbarity and injustice, took place in the winter of 316 A.D. Shortly thereafter, a magnificent church with 40 belfries was erected in memory of the soldiers. The church was active until 1400 when the conqueror Tamerlane captured Sebastia and destroyed its 120,000 people and the church. Subsequently, the site was used as a graveyard and a chapel was built there. The chapel was later destroyed during the Great Massacres of 1915.
The memory of the Forty Saints of Sebastia is celebrated each year on the Saturday following the mid-point of Lent (Michink). A ceremonial Divine Liturgy is celebrated on the following day, Sunday.