On August 17th (the 4th by the old calendar) the Church commemorates the holy Seven Youths of Ephesus (also known as the “Seven Sleepers”).
During the persecution of Christians by the iniquitous Roman Emperor Decius (A.D. 249-251), there lived seven youths in the city of Ephesus: Maximilian, Jamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustodian, and Antoninus. They were the sons of respected city officials and served in the Emperor’s army. Although they were not related to each other by blood, they were linked by a spiritual kinship of faith and love for Christ. Together they prayed, fasted, preserved their chastity.
One time Emperor Decius came to Ephesus and ordered all its citizens to offer a sacrifice to the idols. The Christians were then sought out everywhere, forcibly dragged out of homes and caves, and forced to worship the idols. Those who courageously refused were harshly tortured. There was such a great multitude of martyred Christians that rivers of blood flowed onto the ground, while their bodies lay everywhere in heaps. Seeing such a terrible persecution and torture of Christians, the holy seven youths grievously sorrowed and prayed in church. Very soon they were betrayed to the Emperor, who became angry and ordered them to be brought before him. Standing before the Emperor, the youths fearlessly confessed their faith in Christ, for which they were stripped of their military honors. However, seeing their youth and beauty, Emperor Decius did not order them to be tortured right away, but took pity on them and gave them time to decide to worship the idols. Then he departed for another city, intending to return to Ephesus. The holy youths spent the time granted them by the Emperor in doing good deeds, and then decided to leave the city for a while and go up to a large cave situated in a mountain near the city, and there, spending their time in prayer and silence, to prepare themselves for the forthcoming martyrdom.
Having thus agreed among themselves, the youths went to Mount Ochlon, taking with them some silver coins to buy food for several days. Arriving at the cave, they spent quite a while there, praying to God continuously. Saint Jamblicus, being the youngest of them, was entrusted with the task of going to the city to buy bread. Each time he went to the city, the holy youth changed into rags, in order not to be recognized; a portion of the money which he took with him he gave to the poor and used the remainder to buy bread.
After a while, during one of his regular trips to the city, St. Jamblicus saw the royal procession of Decius returning to Ephesus, and heard his command that all city officials and citizens offer a sacrifice to the gods on the following day, and that the seven youths be found and brought to him. After buying some bread, the frightened Jamblicus returned in haste to the cave, where he informed his brothers-in-arms of all that had happened. Falling on the ground in tears and prayer, the seven youths entrusted themselves to God’s mercy. Then St. Jamblicus prepared an evening meal for them from the bread he had bought, because the sun was already setting, and the holy youths fortified themselves with this meager repast in anticipation of their forthcoming torture. Then they conversed among themselves, supporting and encouraging each other to stand firm and bravely suffer for Christ. During their conversation they fell asleep, because the merciful Lord sent these seven youths a wondrous and extraordinary sleep, in order to show a great miracle in the future and dispel doubts concerning the resurrection of the dead. The saints fell into the sleep of the dead, during which their souls were with God, while their bodies lay incorrupt and unchanged, as of those who are simply asleep.
On the following morning the Emperor commanded the noble youths to be brought to him, but when they could not be found anywhere, their parents were summoned to the Emperor instead. The terrified parents replied that they had no knowledge of their sons’ whereabouts, and had only heard that the latter were hiding on Mount Ochlon. In great wrath the Emperor then ordered the mouth of the cave to be blocked, counting on destroying the holy youths in such a manner.
Soon afterwards the iniquitous Decius died. He was followed by many other wicked rulers, until Constantine the Great came to power, and Christian emperors began to reign. In the days of the pious Emperor Theodosius the Younger (A.D. 408-450), when a long time had passed since the death of Constantine, there appeared some heretics who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Despite the incontrovertible fact of Christ’s Resurrection, not only many laymen, but also some bishops and noblemen fell into this heresy, which gave rise to a persecution of the Orthodox faithful. The heretics created great strife in the church and brought great sorrow to Emperor Theodosius, who prayed to the merciful Lord to openly reveal to those who had gone astray the mystery of the awaited resurrection of the dead and eternal life.
Then, in accordance with the will of Divine Providence, the following occurred. The contemporary owner of Mount Ochlon decided to build an enclosure for sheep on it. While building the enclosure, the laborers used the stones which were blocking the mouth of the cave where the seven youths slept, thinking that these stones were a natural part of the mountain. Thus gradually an opening was formed through which a man could crawl freely. At that time, in accordance with Divine command, the holy youths were resurrected as though awaking from sleep. Arising, they first of all prayed to God, after which they greeted each other as was their wont. It seemed to them that they had simply awakened after a night’s sleep, because there were no changes in them: their clothes remained completely undamaged, their external appearance had not changed in any way, they bloomed with health and beauty as ever. They thought that they had fallen asleep yesterday, and now, upon arising, were sure that Decius was looking for them in order to torture them. Then they decided to once again send Jamblicus to the city to buy bread, because they felt exceedingly hungry, and then, having fortified themselves with food, to leave the cave and willingly give themselves over to martyrdom for Christ.
St. Jamblicus took one silver coin and went to town; it was still quite early and dawn was just appearing. Upon leaving the cave, Jamblicus was amazed to see the stones which, as far as he could remember, had not been there the day before. Arriving at the city gates, he was thunderstruck to see the precious Cross upon them. Then he walked around all the city gates and say crosses everywhere. And all around him, wherever he looked, he saw different building, walls, and houses. He could not come to himself from sheer amazement. Then, taking heart, he entered the city. However, here he heard many swearing by the name of Christ. Jamblicus became frightened, thinking: yesterday no one dared to utter the name of Christ openly, while today I hear it everywhere; this appears to be not Ephesus, but some other city; moreover, even the buildings are different and people are wearing totally different clothes. Continuing on his way, he asked a passerby: “What is the name of this city?” “Ephesus,” – replied the latter. St. Jamblicus did not believe him and continued to think: undoubtedly I have come to a different city; I must buy some bread immediately and hasten to leave before I become completely lost. Drawing near the bread seller, he took out his silver coin and gave it to the merchant, waiting to receive his purchase and change. The silver coin was quite large and had an inscription and engraved images of ancient kings on it. The amazed merchant took the silver coin and showed it to another, and the other – to a third, and soon a whole crowd gathered. Looking at the silver coin, everyone wondered at its antiquity and whispered to each other: “This youth has probably found a treasure that had been hidden in ancient times.” But St. Jamblicus, seeing their whispering, became fearful, thinking that they had recognized him and were about to seize him and take him to Emperor Decius. “I beg of you,” – he said, – “please take the silver coin; I do not want any change.” But the merchants seized Jamblicus and demanded that he reveal to them the whereabouts of the treasure. St. Jamblicus was bewildered by their words and remained silent. He was even further amazed by the fact that no one seemed to recognize him, and that he himself did not see a single familiar face in the surrounding crowd.
News of Jamblicus soon reached the governor of the town, who at that very moment was sitting together with the local bishop; both ordered that the youth with the silver coin be brought to them. Along the way Jamblicus still continued to think that he was being led to Decius. When he was brought before the governor and the bishop, the latter examined the silver coin at length and then asked Jamblicus: “Where is the treasure which you found and from which you took this coin?”
“I do not know of any treasure” – replied the saint; – “I only know that the coin has been taken from my parents and does not differ in any way from the usual coins used in this city. I am amazed and bewildered by what is happening to me.”
“Where are you from?” – asked the governor.
The saint replied: “I believe I am from this city.”
The governor then said: “Whose son are you? Give us the names of your parents or relatives, and we will let you go.”
Jamblicus then gave the names of his father, mother, grandfather, brothers, and other relatives, but the governor angrily said: “You are lying, giving us strange and unusual names which we have never heard. You are pretending to know the Emperor Decius, from the time of whose death nearly 200 years have passed! It would be better for you to reveal to us the location of the treasure you have found; otherwise, I shall throw you into prison.”
Jamblicus, both terrified and bewildered by such words, fell on his knees and asked to be told precisely – was Emperor Decius still alive, and was he in the city?
The bishop replied: “In present times, my son, there is no emperor by the name of Decius in this land. Many years ago, in ancient times, there was such an emperor; now, however, it is the pious Theodosius who reigns.”
Then St. Jamblicus said: “I beg of you, come with me, and inside the cave on Mount Ochlon I will show you my friends, from whom you will learn that I am speaking the truth. Several days ago, fleeing from Decius, we hid in that cave; I saw Decius yesterday as he was entering Ephesus, and now I do not know whether this is Ephesus or some other city.”
Hearing this, the bishop said to the governor: “God wishes to reveal to us some kind of mystery through this youth. Let us go with him and see: something miraculous is about to happen.”
Then the bishop, together with the city officials and many townspeople, followed Jamblicus to Mount Ochlon, where at the entrance to the cave they discovered a sealed copper chest. This chest had been left there by Christians after the entrance to the cave had been filled up by order of Decius. Now this chest was opened and found to contain two tablets, upon which was written that seven holy youths – Maximilian, Jamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustodian, and Antoninus – had fled from Emperor Decius and had hid in this cave; by order of Decius the mouth of the cave had been blocked with stones and the youths had died a martyric death for Christ there. After listening to what had been written on the tablets, everyone was greatly amazed and openly gave glory to God.
Upon entering the cave, they found the holy youths, blooming with health and beauty; their faces shone with the radiance of God’s grace. Then the bishop, the governor, and the people fell at the saints’ feet, glorifying God Who had allowed them to witness such a miracle. The bishop immediately sent a letter to Emperor Theodosius, informing him of the miracle which the Lord had revealed in his reign, saying: “In our days, through the resurrection of the bodies of these holy youths, the Lord has shown us an image of the future resurrection not only of the soul, but also of the body.”
Upon receiving this message, Emperor Theodosius was overjoyed and went immediately to Ephesus, accompanied by his noblemen and a great many people. Arriving at the cave, he bowed before the holy youths and lovingly embraced them, thanking God for revealing to the faithful, through these youths, the truth of the resurrection of the dead. Afterwards, for an entire week the Emperor shared repasts with the youths and served them, while all the people joyously listened to their salvific discourses. After a week passed, in front of everyone’s eyes the youths bowed their heads to the ground and fell into a final sleep, glorified by all the faithful.