From Dom Guéranger's The Liturgical Year.
We know the mystery of the number forty. This tenth of March brings it before us. Forty new advocates! Forty encouraging us to enter bravely on our career of penance! On the frozen pool, which was their field of battle, these martyrs reminded one another that Jesus had fasted for forty days, and that they themselves were forty in number! Let us, in our turn, compare their sufferings with the lenten exercises which the Church imposes upon us; and humble ourselves on seeing our cowardice; or, if we begin with fervour, let us remember that the grand thing is to be faithful to the end, and bring to the Easter solemnity the crown of our perseverance. Our forty martyrs patiently endured the cruellest tortures; the fear of God, and their deep-rooted conviction that He had an infinite claim to their fidelity, gave them the victory. How many times we have sinned, and had not such severe temptations as theirs to palliate our fall! How can we sufficiently bless that divine mercy, which spared us, instead of abandoning us as it did that poor apostate, who turned coward and was lost! But, on what condition did God spare us? That we should not spare ourselves, but do penance. He put into our hands the rights of His own justice; justice, then, must be satisfied, and we must exercise it against ourselves. The lives of the saints will be of great help to us in this, for they will teach us how we are to look upon sin, how to avoid it, and how strictly we are bound to do penance for it after having committed it.
The Church, in her liturgy, thus relates to us the martyrdom of the soldiers of Sebaste.
Licinio imperatore, et Agricolao præside, ad Sebasten Armeniæ urbem, quadraginta militum fides in Jesum Christum, et fortitudo in cruciatibus perferendis enituit. Qui sæpius in horribilem carcerem detrusi, vinculisque constricti, cum ora ipsorum lapidibus contusa fuissent, hiemis tempore frigidissimo, nudi sub aperto aere supra stagnum rigens pernoctare jussi sunt, ut frigore congelati necarentur. Una autem erat omnium oratio: Quadraginta in stadium ingressi sumus, quadraginta item, Domine, corona donemur; ne una quidem huic numero desit. Est in honore hic numerus, quem tu quadraginta dierum jejunio decorasti, per quem divina lex ingressa est in orbem terrarum. Elias quadraginta dierum jejunio Deum quærens, ejus visionem consecutus est. Et hæc quidem illorum erat oratio.
Cæteris autem oustodibus somno deditis, solus vigilabat janitor, qui et illos orantes, et luce circumfusos, et quosdam e cœlo descendentes angelos tanquam a Rege missos, qui coronas triginta novem militibus distribuerent, intuens, ita secum loquebatur: Quadraginta hi sunt; quadragesimi corona ubi est? Quæ dum cogitaret, unus ex illo numero, cui animus ad frigus ferendum defecerat in proximum tepefactum balneum desiliens, sanctos illos summo dolore affecit. Verum Deus illorum preces irritas esse non est passus; nam rei eventum admiratus janitor, mox custodibus e somno excitatis, detractisque sibi vestibus, ac se christianum esse clara voce professus, martyribus se adjunxit. Cum vero præsidis satellites janitorem quoque christianum esse cognovissent, bacillis comminuta omnium eorum crura fregerunt.
In eo supplicio mortui sunt omnes præter Melithonem, natu minimum. Quem cum præsens mater ejus fractis cruribus adhuc viventem vidisset, sic cohortata est: Fili, paulisper sustine, ecce Christus ad januamstat adjuvans te. Cum vero reliquorum corpora plaustris imponi cerneret, ut in rogum inferrentur, ac filium suum relinqui, quod speraret impia turba, puerum, si vixisset, ad idolorum cultum revocari posse; ipso in humeros sublato, sancta mater vehicula martyrum corporibus onusta strenue prosequebatur; in cujus amplexu Melithon spiritum Deo reddidit, ejusque corpus in eumdem illum cæterorum martyrum rogum pia mater injecit: ut qui fide et virtute conjunctissimi fuerant, funeris etiam societate copulati, una in cœlum pervenirent. Combustis ills, eorum reliquiae projectæ in profluentem, cum mirabiliter in unum confluxissent locum, salvæ et integræ repertæ, honorifico sepulchro conditæ sunt.
During the reign of the Emperor Licinius, and under the presidency of Agricolaus, the city of Sebaste in Armenia was honoured by being made the scene of the martyrdom of forty soldiers, whose faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and patience in bearing tortures, were so glorious. After having been frequently confined in a horrid dungeon, shackled with chains, and having had their faces beaten with stones, they were condemned to pass a most bitter winter night in the open air, and on a frozen pool, that they might be frozen to death. When there, they united in this prayer: 'Forty have we entered on the battle; let us, O Lord, receive forty crowns, and suffer not our number to be broken. The number is an honoured one, for thou didst fast for forty days, and the divine law was given to the world after the same number of days was observed. Elias, too, sought God by a forty days’ fast, and was permitted to see him. Thus did they pray.
All the guards, except one, were asleep. He overheard their prayer, and saw them encircled with light, and angels coming down from heaven, like messengers sent by a King, who distributed crowns to thirty-nine of the soldiers. Whereupon, he thus said to himself: ‘There are forty men; where is the fortieth crown?’ While he was thus pondering, one of the number lost his courage; he could bear the cold no longer, and threw himself into a warm bath, which had been placed near at hand. His saintly companions were exceedingly grieved at this. But God would not suffer their prayer to be void. The sentinel, astonished at what he had witnessed, went immediately and awoke the guards; then, taking off his garments, he cried out, with a loud voice, that he was a Christian, and associated himself with the martyrs. No sooner did the governor’s guards perceive that the sentinel had also declared himself to be a Christian, than they approached the martyrs, and broke their legs with clubs.
All died under this torture except Melithon, who was the youngest of the forty. His mother, who was present, seeing that he was still living after his legs were broken, thus encouraged him: ‘My son, be patient yet a while. Lo! Christ is at the door, helping thee.’ But, as soon as she saw the other bodies being placed on carts, that they might be thrown on the pile, and her son left behind (for the impious men hoped that, if the boy survived, he might be induced to worship the idols), she lifted him up into her arms, and, summing up all her strength, ran after the waggons, on which the martyrs bodies were being carried. Melithon died in his mother’s arms, and the holy woman threw his body on the pile, where the other martyrs were, that as he had been so united with them in faith and courage, he might bo one with them in burial, and go to heaven in their company. As soon as the bodies, were burnt, the pagans threw what remained into a river. The relics miraculously flowed to one and the same place, just as they were when they were taken from the pile. The Christians took them, and respectfully buried them.
That we may the more worthily celebrate the memory of the forty martyrs, we borrow a few stanzas from the hymn in which the Greek liturgy so enthusiastically sings their praises.
(Die IX. Martii)
Generose præsentia sufferentes, in præmiis quæ sperabant gaudentes, sancti martyres ad invicem dicebant: Non vestimentum exuimus, sed veterem hominem deponimus; rigida est hiems, sed dulcis paradisus; molesta est glacies, sed jucunda requies. Non ergo recedamus, O commilitones: paulum sustineamus, ut victoriæcoronas obtineamus a Christo Domino et Salvatore animarum nostrarum.
Fortissima mente martyrium sustinentes, athletæ admirandi, per ignem et aquam transivistis, et inde ad salutis latitudinem perveniatis, in hæreditatem accipientes regnum cœlorum, in quo divinas pro nobis preces facite, sapientes quadraginta martyres.
Attonitus stetit quadraginta martyrum custos coronas aspiciens, et amore hujus vitæ contempto, desiderio gloriæ tuæ, Domine, quæ illi apparuerat, sublevatus est, et cum martyribus cecinit: Benedictus es, Deus patrum nostrorum.
Vitæ amator miles ad lavacrum currens pestiferum mortuus est; Christi autem amicus egregius raptor coronarum quæ apparuerant, velut in lavacro immortalitatis, cum martyribus canebat: Benedictus es, Deus patrum nostrorum.
Virili prædita pectore, mater Deo amica, super humeros tollens quem genuerat fructum pietatis, martyrem cum martyribus victimam adducit, patris Abrahæimitatrix. O fili, ad perenniter manentem vitam velocius currens carpe viam, Christi amica mater ad puerum clamabat. Non fero te secundum ad Deum præmia largientem pervenire.
Venite, fratres, martyrum laudibus celebremus phalangem, frigore incensam, et errons frigus ardenti zelo incendentem; generosissimum exercitum, sacratissimum agmen, consertis pugnans clypeis, infractum et invictum, defensores fidei et custodes, martyres quadraginta, divinam choream, legatos Ecclesiæ, potenter Christum deprecantes ut pacem animis nostris concedat et magnam misericordiam.
The holy martyrs, generously suffering present evils, and rejoicing in the hope of reward, said to each other: 'It is not our raiment, but the old man that we have put off. The winter is cold; but paradise is sweet. The ice is a torture; but the repose is pleasant. Fellow-soldiers! let us not retreat. Let us suffer for a while, that we may obtain our crowns of victory from Christ our Lord, the Saviour of our souls.’
O admirable combatants! you suffered martyrdom with most brave hearts. You passed through fire and water, and thence you came to the spacious land of salvation, receiving the kingdom of heaven as your inheritance. There, O prudent forty martyrs, offer up your holy prayers for us.
The gaoler of the forty martyrs stood in astonishment as he beheld the crowns. Despising this present life, and ambitious to enjoy thy glory, O Lord, which had been shown him in vision, he joined the martyrs in this hymn: ‘Blessed art thou, O God of our fathers!'
The soldier that loved this life, ran to the cursed bath, and there he met with death: but the friend of Christ, he that nobly seized the crown which was offered him, as it were laved in immortality, sang with the martyrs: ‘Blessed art thou, the God of our fathers!'
The mother, whose manly spirit made her dear to God, taking on her shoulders the beloved fruit of her womb, brings him to the martyrs that he may be a martyred victim with them. Thus does she imitate our father Abraham. This mother, dear to Christ, cried out to her child: 'O my son; quickly run the path that leads to life eternal. I cannot brook thy being second to any in coming to the God, who rewards us.’
Come, brethren, let us sing the praises of the troop of martyrs, who were burnt with frost, and whose ardent zeal set fire to the frosty cold of error. Most heroic army; most holy legion, that fought with shields close knit together; unbroken and unconquered troop; defenders and guardians of the faith; the forty martyrs, the sacred choir, the legates of the Church: their powerful prayers to Christ draw down upon our souls his peace and rich mercy.
Valiant soldiers of Christ, who meet us, with your mysterious number, at this commencement of our forty days’ fast, receive the homage of our devotion. Your memory is venerated throughout the whole Church, and your glory is great in heaven. Though engaged in the service of an earthly prince, you were the soldiers of the eternal King: to Him were you faithful, and from Him did you receive your crown of eternal glory. We, also, are His soldiers; we are fighting for the kingdom of heaven. Our enemies are many and powerful; but, like you, we can conquer them, if, like you, we use the arms which God has put in our hands. Faith in God’s word, hope in His assistance, humility, and prudence, with these we are sure of victory. Pray for us, O holy martyrs, that we may avoid all compromise with our enemies; for our defeat is certain, if we try to serve two masters. During these forty days, we must put our arms in order, repair our lost strength, and renew our engagements; come to our assistance, and get us a share in your brave spirit. A crown is also prepared for us: it is to be won on easier terms than yours; and yet we shall lose it, unless we keep up within us an esteem for our vocation. How many times, in our past lives, have we forfeited that glorious crown! But God, in His mercy, has offered it to us again, and we are resolved on winning it. Oh, for the glory of our common Lord and Master, make intercession for us.
Our work of preparation is over: we are ready to obey our mother’s call to Lent. During the three past weeks, we have studied the fall of our first parents, and the miseries it brought upon man; the necessity of a Saviour; the justice of God, against which the human race dared to rebel; the terrible chastisement of the deluge, wherewith that revolt was punished; and finally, the covenant made by God, through Abraham, with those who are faithful to Him, and shun the maxims of a perverse and guilty world.
Now we are to see the accomplishment of the great mysteries, whereby the wounds of our fall were healed, the divine justice was disarmed, and God’s grace was poured out upon us, delivering us from the yoke of Satan and the world.
The Man-God, whose sweet presence has been less sensible during this Septuagesima season, is now about to show Himself to us again, but this time it is on His way to Calvary, where He is to be immolated for our redemption. The dolorous Passion, which our sins have imposed upon Him, is about to be brought before us: the greatest of anniversaries will soon be upon us.
Let us be all attention to the mysteries: let us be fervent in the great work of our own purification. Let us walk on courageously in the path of penance, so that each day the burden of our sins may be lightened, and after we have partaken, by heartfelt compassion, of the cup of our Redeemer’s Passion, our lips will be once more permitted to sing the songs of joy, and our hearts will thrill at Easter with the loud burst of the Church’s Alleluia!