On March 9, the Church honors the holy memory of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, a group of heroic and holy military men who fought "the good fight of faith" (1 Timothy 6:12) to their own deaths in 320.
These martyrs were Christians who were enlisted in the Roman Army. All of them belonged to the same company of soldiers stationed at Sebaste, Armenia. They had a good reputation for honor, bravery and integrity. But their pagan commander decided to purge his troops of Christians, so he threatened to give them dishonorable discharges if they did not give up their Christian faith and adopt paganism in its place.
But the soldiers stood firm and refused to turn their backs on the Lord Jesus Christ. The commander and his cohorts tried a number of tactics -- flattery, bribery, bullying, jail time and torture -- to change their minds, but none of them worked. Fed up with their resolve and stamina, the commander decided to break their will by ordering them to spend the night, stripped naked and under armed guard, on the frozen local lake in the dead of winter cold, where they would either change their minds or die of exposure.
The soldiers courageously endured the freezing temperatures out on the lake all night with prayer and psalmody on their lips, even though their guards set up a blazing campfire and a warm, inviting bathhouse on the shore to tempt them into apostasy. One soldier did give in to temptation, leave his brothers-in-arms and head for this warmth and comfort, but he dropped dead before reaching them.
In the middle of the night, a heavenly light began to shine in the darkness, with a vision of 39 crowns hovering over the heads of the 39 unwavering martyrs out on the lake. Seeing this phenomenon, one of the guards on duty confessed his belief in Christ and joined the martyrs in their sufferings, bringing their number back to 40 -- with an extra crown then appearing for him.
The grace of God and the faith of the martyrs kept them alive through the night. In the morning, the commander was furious to learn of their survival and the conversion of yet another soldier. He ordered the guards to break their legs and burn them alive. When this grisly work was done, he ordered the guards to throw the charred bones of the martyrs into the lake, so the local Christians could not give them a decent burial or venerate their relics.
Some time after the martyrs' execution, however, these saints appeared in a dream to the saintly Bishop Peter of Sebaste, telling him to retrieve their relics and give them a decent burial. When the bishop and his presbyters went to the lake after nightfall, they found the relics of the martyrs glowing in the water like stars in the skies. They were thus able to gather them up and bury them decently.
The names of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste are Acacius, Aetius, Aglaius, Alexander, Angius, Athanasius, Candidus, Chudion, Claudius, Cyril, Cyrion, Dometian, Domnus, Ecdicius, Elijah, Eunoicus, Eutychius, Flavius, Gaius, Gorgonius, Helianus, Heraclius, Hesychius, John, Leontius, Lysimachus, Meliton, Nicholas, Philoctimon, Priscus, Sacerdon, Santhias, Severian, Sisinius, Smaragdus, Theodulus, Theophilus, Valens, Valerius and Vivianus.
Interestingly, the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste are mentioned every time a man and a woman get married in the Church. During the crowning of the bride and the groom in the holy mystery of marriage, the presbyter prays for the couple: "Lord our God, remember them as you remembered the holy forty martyrs, sending down crowns from heaven on them." These words are meant to remind the couple that marriage is no "bed of roses," requires the self-sacrifice of a martyr on both sides to make it work, and "when the going gets tough, the tough must get going" together, in order to win their eternal crowns in heaven as husband and wife in Christ.
"You forty champions of the Lord left behind the armies of the world and enlisted yourselves in the service of the Master in heaven. Having gone through fire and water, you blessed ones fittingly won glory from heaven in a multitude of crowns" (Kontakion of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, Tone 6).