Forty Martyrs
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On the Holy Forty Martyrs
by Saint Basil the Great
Translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery


SHALL he that loves Martyrs ever be satiated with celebrating their memory? The honor that we fellow-servants render to these stalwarts is the proof of our affection towards our common Master. For assuredly, he that lauds courageous men, in similar circumstances will not fail to emulate them himself. Wholeheartedly bless the sufferings of the Martyrs so that you might become a Martyr by your volition, and, without persecution, without fire, without scourging, you might be shown worthy of recompenses in no way differing from theirs. Behold, there is not but one man standing before us to be admired, nor are there only two; the number of the blessed is not even limited to ten; nay, there are forty men in whom one soul dwells, as it were, in disjoined bodies. In harmony and concord of faith they were shown to be one in their forbearance of sufferings and in their steadfastness for the sake of the Truth. All resembled one another, being equal in spirit, equal in deed; hence they were deemed worthy of equally honorable crowns of glory.

Wherefore, what word can fittingly describe their worthiness? Even forty tongues were not sufficient to glorify the valor of such men. Even if one were the object of our wonder, this one alone would suffice to overthrow the power of my words. How much the more so with such a multitude, with this martial phalanx, this invincible host which, even as it is unconquered in battle, so also does it remain beyond the approach of praise.

Come now, as I bring them into our midst by mentioning them, let us set forth a benefit common to all that are here present, depicting for all, as it were in a picture, the excellent deeds of these men. Valiancies displayed in battle were oftentimes described by historians and artists, adorned by the one in words while the others traced them in pictures, and in this manner many were exhorted to manliness. What the word of narrative presents to the hearing, the artist emulates in silence. And so I summon before you here present the virtue of these men, setting, as it were, their deeds before your eyes. I encourage you who are more valorous and more akin to them to imitate their volition. This is the encomium of the Martyrs: the exhortation of those who have gathered to virtue; for orations concerning the Saints do not admit of slavishly following the rules of orations. Those who make such orations of praise take the themes of their eulogies from worldly subjects, but how can something of the world furnish the substance of the panegyric of the man unto whom "the world is crucified"? (Gal. 6:14).

These holy ones had no one fatherland, for they hailed from diverse places. But what of this? How shall we address them? "City-less," or citizens of the entire world? Just as with the payment of monies into a fellowship trust, the deposit of each becomes the common fortune of all the donors; so with these blessed ones, the fatherland of each one is the shared homeland of all, and every one, each being from different places, shares his fatherland with the others. One should rather say: what need is there of searching out their earthly fatherlands when one can reflect upon their current city and upon what manner of city it is? The city of the Martyrs is the City of God, "whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:10), the "Jerusalem which is above and free, the Mother of us all" (cf. Gal. 4:26). Unto these things did Paul liken it. Their generation, as men, was each his own, but spiritually it was shared by all, for they had one common father, God; and all were brothers, not as being born of one father and one mother, but by the adoption of the Spirit were they bound one to another in the accord of love.

This is a ready choir, a great addition to that number who have glorified the Lord from ages past. They were assembled not one after another, but were translated together. And what was the manner of this translation? Because they excelled all their contemporaries in bodily stature, in the prime of their years, and in strength, they were enlisted in the military, and from the Emperor they received the prize distinctions for their skill in warfare and their courage of soul. Before all others they were preeminent in virtue.

Now, when the godless and impious decree that one should deny Christ or expose himself to peril was proclaimed, every sort of torture was threatened, and a great and bestial fury was unleashed upon the pious by the judges of unrighteousness. Calumnies and plots were contrived against them; they were interrogated under many diverse kinds of torture. The torturers were implacable. The fire was prepared, the sword sharpened, the cross was planted in the ground, the pit, the wheels, and the scourges were all made ready. While some fled, others submitted, and yet others were shaken, and even before trial, several were panic-stricken by the horror of the threats alone. Because of the imminent terrors, some lost their heads, and yet others, entering into the contest in no condition to endure the pain until the end, forsook the struggle halfway through, and like those caught in a storm at sea, they suffered shipwreck and thereby lost the cargo of patience that was formerly theirs. However, these invincible and courageous warriors of Christ, having stepped forward boldly and without fear, were neither frightened in the least by things seen, nor terrified by the menaces, and with voices unconstrained they declared to the city governor, who had proclaimed the imperial edict and who demanded their compliance, that they were Christians. O blessed lips, that gave utterance to this sacred acclamation, which sanctified the very air that they breathed! When the Angels heard this, they applauded, but the devil and his demons were sorely wounded, and it was inscribed by the Lord in the Heavens! Each one, therefore, coming to the fore, stated: I am a Christian! And as in the arena those enlisting for the match declare their names simultaneously and take their stand for the contest, so each of them, casting aside the name chosen for him at birth, took upon himself the Name of the Saviour of all. And this they all did, he that followed being united with him that went before; thus it was that one name became the name of them all. They did not say I am such-a-one or such-a-one, but all proclaimed that they were Christians.

What then was the governor to do? He was shrewd and abounded in means of alluring by flatteries and of deflecting by menaces. At first he wished to charm them with flatteries, thus attempting to weaken the power of their piety. He said: "Do not cast your youth away; do not exchange this sweet life for an untimely death. To him whose wont it is to be distinguished in valor during battle it is unbecoming to suffer the death of a malefactor." Moreover, he promised them money. And this he gave them, and imperial honors; he bestowed distinctions upon them and sought to conquer them with a thousand fabrications. Seeing that they did not succumb to such temptations, he resorted to another kind of guile: he put them in fear of torments, of death, and of trial by the most unbearable tortures.

Thus did he act. But what of the Martyrs? They reply: "Why, O enemy of God, do you entice us by laying these good things before us as snares, so that we might fall away from the Living God and be enslaved by the demons of perdition? Why are you giving so much? Why are you taking such pains to snatch us away? We abhor the largess that brings such injury upon us. We do not accept honor that is the mother of dishonor. You bestow money that remains behind, and glory that fades away. You seek to make us friends of the Emperor, but alienate us from the True King. What is this that you are setting before us, that is so little and paltry? We disdain the whole world! There is nothing among visible things which rivals the worth of our longed-for hope. You see the sky--how beautiful it is to behold, how majestic; you see the earth--how spacious it is, and what wonders there are upon it? None of these things approaches the measure of the blessedness of the righteous. For all this passes away, but our good things abide. We desire one gift, the crown of righteousness. We are anxious for one glory, the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom. We love honors, those of Heaven. We fear tortures, even the tortures of Gehenna. That fire strikes us with terror, but this one which you threaten serves our purpose. It is able to make venerable those who do not venerate the idols. We consider your "wounds" to be the "arrows of infants" (Psalm 63:8), since when you strike the body it is the more radiantly crowned, if it endures these blows well. And should it be soon exhausted, it is delivered from its violent persecutors, who subjugate the body so that they might succeed as they strive to rule over the soul; who, if you have not been preferred to our God, become exceedingly vexed and, as though in this you are insulted to the uttermost by us, you threaten these fearful torments and account our piety as a crime. But you will not find us fainthearted, neither will you find us attached to this life, nor readily stricken with terror. For the love of God, we are prepared to endure breaking upon the wheel, stretching upon the rack, burning, yea, to receive all manner of torment."

When he heard these things, that arrogant and barbarous man, not bearing the boldness of these men, and boiling with rage, began to consider within himself what means were at his disposal that he might prepare a death for them both prolonged and bitter. Finally he came upon the means, and behold how cruel his artifice was! Having considered the climate of that land, for it was bleak, and the season of year, for it was winter, he observed that during the nighttime the chill attained its highest intensity, and moreover that a northerly wind then blew: therefore he gave the command that they all be left naked in the open air in the midst of the city, and thus being frozen, they should die.

But you that have endured the winter cold know, without any doubt, that this kind of torment is so unbearable that it cannot be explained to another, except to those who can make analogies from their own experience of this. Having been subjected to the cold, the body at first grows blue as its blood freezes, then it shivers and trembles; meanwhile the teeth chatter, the veins close, and the whole mass of the body is constricted involuntarily. Thus this keen smarting and inexpressible suffering penetrate even into the very center of the brain, and they produce in those who freeze an intolerable sensation. Later the members of the body fall away as if burned by a fire, because the warmth, driven from the extremities of the body and fleeing to the interior, leaves those parts from which it has departed dead; and those parts into which it has gathered itself it delivers over to tortuous pain. All the while, death from freezing draws constantly closer.

Thus it was that they were sentenced to spend the night under the open sky. The lake, round about which the populous town lies and in which the Saints contested, was covered with ice and had become, as it were, solid land fit for chariot driving. So hard had it become because of the cold that the neighboring citizens could walk over the surface without danger. The streaming rivers, bound by the ice, stopped their flow, and the water, by nature soft, was changed, becoming hard like stone; and the piercing northerly winds brought death upon all that lived.

When they had heard the command (in this, consider the invincible courage of the Martyrs), with joy each one cast off even his undermost tunic, and all hastened to encounter death from the cold. And as though they went to seize the spoils of war, they encouraged each other, saying: "We throw off not our clothing but rather we are laying aside 'the old man which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts' (Eph. 4:22). We thank Thee, O Lord, that with this raiment we are casting away sin from ourselves. By the serpent we were vested; through Christ we shall be divested. For the sake of the Paradise which we have lost, we shall not cling to our raiment. 'What shall we render unto the Lord?' (Psalm 115:3). Our Lord was also stripped of His raiment. Is it, then, a great thing for the servant to bear what even the Master has endured? We might better say: we have stripped the Lord Himself, for it was the audacity of the soldiers that they divested Him and parted His garments among themselves. Therefore we shall blot out the accusation against us by our action. Bitter is winter, but sweet is Paradise; grievous is freezing, but delightful the repose. We shall endure for a short time, then the Patriarch's bosom will warm us. We shall barter one night for all eternity. Let the foot burn, that she might dance with the Angels forever! Let the hand fall away, that she might have boldness to raise herself up to her Master! How many of our companions in arms fell on the battle front, preserving their loyalty to a corruptible king? Is it possible that we should fail to sacrifice our lives in fidelity to the True King? How many men, condemned unjustly, have suffered a malefactor's death? Can it be that we should not endure death for righteousness' sake? Let us not turn aside, O warriors; let us not turn our backs in flight from the devil. We are of flesh, but we shall not spare it. Insofar as we must certainly die, let us die in order to live. 'Let our sacrifice be acceptable before Thee, O Lord' (Dan. 3:40 LXX). May we be received as a living sacrifice, well-pleasing unto Thee, wholly burned by the chill cold; this shall be a fair oblation, a new manner of holocaust, wholly burned as an offering, not by fire, but by the cold."

Such consolations did they afford one another, and, each encouraging the others as if they were keeping guard at the hour of battle, they spent the night courageously bearing things present, rejoicing in the things looked for, and deriding the enemy. All had but a single prayer: "As forty men we entered into the arena; may we be crowned as forty men, O Master! May this number not be diminished even by a single one! It is an honorable number, which Thou, through Whom the Law came into the world, didst honor by thy forty day fast. And Elias was vouchsafed a vision, having sought the Lord in fasting forty days." Yet although this was their petition, nonetheless one of that number, bending before the afflictions, separated himself from them and deserted their ranks, thus bringing upon the Saints untold sorrow. But the Lord did not permit that their supplication be left unfulfilled.

The man to whom the custody of the Martyrs was entrusted was warming himself at no great distance from the very course of the contest; he was keeping watch that he might be ready to receive those of the soldiers who fled to him. Moreover, they had taken counsel beforehand to provide a bath nearby, thus promising speedy aid to those who might renounce their profession. The evil intent which the enemies conceived was to seek out a place for the contest where the readiness of alleviation might weaken the firm resolve of the combatants; but this only manifested the patience of the Martyrs more radiantly, for not he that is lacking in necessities possesses patient endurance, but he that endures tribulations, although possessing plenteous enjoyments.

As the Martyrs were in the midst of their contest and the guard was keeping watch over events, he beheld an extraordinary spectacle: he saw certain Powers descending from Heaven and distributing, as it were, great prizes from the King to the soldiers. They distributed the gifts among them all, and only one did they leave without a prize, judging that he was not worthy of the heavenly awards, and this was he who, soon thereafter, abandoned the suffering and went over to the enemies.

What a sad sight for the righteous ones! A warrior becomes a deserter; the valiant one--a captive; Christ's sheep--the prey of the beasts! But sadder yet, not only did he fail to attain to eternal life: he was also deprived of the enjoyment of the present one, for his flesh immediately dissolved because of the effect of the warmth upon it. But even as this lover of life fell, transgressing the law without in any way profiting himself, so the executioner, scarcely had he seen that one had deserted and gone to the bath, himself took the place of the deserter. Throwing off his raiment, he joined himself to the naked ones, crying out in unison with the Saints: "I am a Christian." The bystanders were astonished at the unexpectedness of his conversion, and as he gave himself to complete their number, so by his joining them he soothed their grief over him whose purpose was weakened, and following the example of those standing in the battle line, he conducted himself accordingly; for these, should anyone in the first row fall, speedily and immediately take his place in the phalanx, so that their battle line might not be broken by their comrade in arms who had fallen. And in a like manner, he conducted himself. He saw the heavenly wonders, recognized the Truth, ran to the Master, and was accounted among the Martyrs! Here we see the things which befell the disciples re-enacted. Judas fell away, and Matthias entered in his stead. Yesterday's persecutor became an imitator of Paul, and is now preaching the Good Tidings. He had a calling from on high "not of men, neither by man" (Gal. 1:1). He believed in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and was baptized into Him, not by another, but by his own faith; not in water, but in his own blood.

And so, at the dawning of the day, the Martyrs, still breathing, were committed to the fire, and the remnants from that fire were cast into the river, that the contest of the blessed ones might embrace all creation. They contested upon earth, showed long-suffering in the air, were committed to the fire, and it was the water that received them. To them belong the words: "We went through fire and water, and Thou didst bring us out into refreshment" (Psalm 65:12). Having taken possession of our land, like an unbroken colonnade of pillars they afford security against invasion of enemies, and not in one place have they confined themselves, for they are afforded hospitality in many places, and many countries have they adorned. And what is remarkable is that, not divided singly do they visit those who receive them, but having been mingled with one another, together they dance in a band.

O wonder! They are not diminished in number, nor do they tolerate any increase. If you divide them into a hundred, they do not depart from their particular number. And if you should gather them into one, even in that instance they yet remain forty, being like unto the nature of fire; for fire, as it passes to that which is kindled, yet remains entirely with that which previously held it. In such a manner these are forty, both all together, and taken singly. This bounteous beneficence, this inexhaustible grace, a ready help for Christians, a church of Martyrs, a host of trophy-bearers, a choir singing praises! How many labors did you undertake to seek out but one to intercede for you before the Lord! And here, here there are forty intercessors offering up a prayer in unison! "Where two or three are gathered together in the Name of the Lord, there He is in the midst of them" (cf. Matt. 18:20); but can one doubt God's presence where there are forty? He who suffers flees to the Forty Martyrs, he who is rejoicing runs to them; the one that he might find deliverance from adverse circumstances, the other to safeguard his felicity. Here you will come upon the God-fearing wife who intercedes for her children, making supplication for the return of her separated husband, and seeking health for the sick.

Let our petitions be with the Martyrs! Let the young emulate them as their contemporaries; let fathers pray that they might be parents of children like unto them; let mothers attend to the tale of that good mother. For the mother of one of these blessed ones, having seen that the others had already died from the chill cold while her son, because of the strength of his vigor and his endurance in affliction, yet breathed, took him herself in her very hands and placed him on the wagon on which they were taking the others to the fire; for the executioners had left him behind in the hope that he might reconsider. Here, truly, is the mother of a Martyr! She did not shed tears of faintheartedness, nor did she utter anything base and unworthy at that hour; rather she said: "Depart, my son, go on that good path with your peers and your companions; be not separated from their choir; do not appear before the Master after the others!" Behold, indeed, the good scion of a good root! The virtuous mother shows that she had nourished him more on the doctrines of piety than on milk: thus was he trained; thus was he sent forth by his godly mother! And the devil departed in humiliation because, having raised up all creation against the Martyrs, he found that by their valor everything was vanquished--the aeolian night, the inclement land, the season of the year, and the nakedness of the body.

O holy choir! Sacred cohort! Unbroken battleline! All-encompassing guardians of the race of man! Good companions in adversity, ready helpers in prayer, mighty mediators, luminaries of the universe, flower of the Church! The earth did not conceal you, rather Heaven received you. To you the gates of Paradise were opened. A sight worthy of the Angelic Army, worthy of the Patriarchs, the Prophets, the Righteous--men in the very flower of their youth who have disdained this life, who have loved the Lord above parents and children! Being at an age where life is worth living, they disregarded this temporal life that they might glorify God in their members, being "a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men" (I Cor. 4:9). They set aright the fallen, confirm the shaken, redouble the zeal of the pious! Having raised up a single triumphal banner for piety's sake, all are adorned with the one crown of righteousness, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be glory and dominion to the ages of ages.

Amen.