The feast of the forty martyrs of Sebaste was always a great celebration for the Orthodox Church. From ancient times, from the day of their martyric death which took place in the early 4th century, in 313 A.D., the Church lauded and glorified these saints. They suffered for Christ on the very eve of the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire. At that time the famous Edict of Milan, which granted freedom to confess the Christian faith, had already been adopted, but there were still separate outbursts of persecution before the achievement of Christianity’s complete victory and its firm establishment in the Roman Empire.
These forty soldiers were martyred for Christ in the icy Lake of Sebaste. However, their death was especially glorious because they were simultaneously tempted by the possibility of deliverance from suffering: a bathhouse was heated up on the shores of the lake, and each one of them was offered the chance to leave his place of martyrdom and seek this means of salvation. This bathhouse was not the simple bathhouse we think of today. In those times the bathhouse was like a social club in which the entire life was spent; it represented all that a man who does not know God would be looking for in life.
This spiritual endeavor is also memorable for us because one of the soldiers was actually unable to stay the course and did do just that: he chose a safe and comfortable life without Christ over death with Christ. This was seen by one of the guards. By God’s unfathomable providence it was revealed to the guard that the place where the martyrs were standing contained life and glory. It contained the warmth which cannot be found anywhere else, at any time, for the Lord Himself was there. Seeing martyric crowns descending upon the sufferers, he cried out: “I, too, am a Christian!” – and joined them, in order to share with them both the suffering and the glory.
From the very beginning the Church saw in this image that which determines the life of every Christian and the life of the entire Church. For better or for worse each person faces such a choice at different periods in life, and each must choose either one thing or another. That is the way life is set up: we must either give up Christ, or give up our well-being. No one can avoid this choice.
Sometimes there are tribulations that overwhelm the entire Church. The persecutions which took place in the early days of the Church, and those which took place in recent times have all been defined precisely by that concept – some chose Christ, while others renounced Him. Some renounced Him when they were close to receiving a martyric crown. And yet among people indifferent to the Church and even among its persecutors were unexpectedly found those who preferred death with Christ to life without Christ.
And so we ponder the state of being Christ’s elect. The Lord tells us in His Gospel that the mystery of the salvation of each individual is deep, and that only the Lord, Who reads our inner hearts, knows who will endure the hour of persecution and who will renounce Christ. The Lord also tells us that it does not matter when a person is called to Christ: at the last hour or among the first. A person can seemingly be with Christ and in the Church throughout his entire life, yet at the last hour renounce Christ. Even an entire people can seemingly be with God and then suddenly renounce Him, as was the case with the Jewish people.
In commemorating the forty martyrs of Sebaste we ponder this mystic providence of God – the fact that the Lord calls each person to Him irrespective of the progression of the person’s external life. Some come in the first hour, as the Lord says in the Gospel, others in the third or sixth hour, still others come much later, and some, as it turns out, come when there appears to be no hope left whatever of conversion to Christ – in the eleventh hour.
The Lord calls some people to Him when they are in the bloom of youth, others at the noon of maturity, and still others at the sunset of their lives. Some can reach the Lord within the space of an hour, as did the wise thief, while for others even a whole lifetime is not enough to come to Christ.
Some people are called by the Lord when they have been able to accomplish a lot here on earth; others when they stand of the threshold of life, full of aspirations, perhaps even noble ones, of accomplishing great things; and others still when they have not even begun to live.
And all are equally received by the Lord, no matter when, or at what hour, or at what age the person is called to Christ. The Lord is compassionate toward all people and especially to those who seem to be unable to come to Him. To those who stand around until the eleventh, the last hour, like laborers who wish to be employed, who wish to use all their abilities and talents in life, but who are unable to make use of them. No one needs them Or perhaps they do not have any special talents, and this is why no one needs them. The Lord is always deeply compassionate towards such people. He calls them to Him, too, and gives them His own work, the work of Christ, which, as it turns out, is not any lesser than the work done by other people. And we look with amazement upon the generosity with which the Lord recompenses all who come to Him. Some have labored throughout the entire day, while others have labored for only one hour and have not suffered the heat or toil of the day. Yet He gives the same recompense to all.
At this point a very important mystery of spiritual life is revealed to us: that in reality the Lord takes into account not the quantity of our labors, but our love. Everything we do in life is regarded by the Lord through the prism of the inner content of what we do.
This is what defines man’s entire life and his participation in the Church. It is so understandable: just like when a child draws a picture for his mother’s birthday – how precious the gift is to her! The mother is overjoyed, and this picture is dearer to her than any other gift. The same concept measures our offering to the Lord, only to an infinitely greater extent.
Let us absorb this mystery of life by remembering our New Martyrs of Russia. Let us not forget that the trials undergone in the 4th century and in the 20th century still await the Church at the very last turning point in history. The trials in which each person, the entire Church, the whole of mankind will have to make a choice: the terrible choice that was already made once when Christ was being crucified, when they shouted: “Give us not Him, but Barrabas.” The choice that was made by one of the martyrs of Sebaste, who preferred those “warm bathhouses” – life in all its well-being – to Christ. “Not Him, but Barrabas,” – such was the choice made by mankind at that time. And such will be the last choice before the end of the world. We see that it is already being made before our very eyes.
Let us remember that one person may be engaged in some grandiose activity, seemingly even a Christian one, and may occupy a very important place in the Church, while another person may be completely unnoticeable and unknown, and may perform his services humbly, quietly. Yet the Lord tests the hearts of people and accepts them not in accordance with their external service, but according to the spirit in which the person performs this service, in order to make him part of His bounty and His boundless love.
May God grant us a beneficial passage through the forty days of the Great Lent. The forty martyrs are like these forty days, with each day granting us the possibility of either living or dying spiritually. Let us then die for sin, in order to become confessors of Christ’s truth, become those who prefer the Lord Christ to everything else on earth. Amen.