Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Joining the Chorus of Martyrs: Culture, Evangelical Copypasta, and the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste

Today, on the Revised Julian Calendar used by the Orthodox Church in America, it is the feast of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. This feast is a source of much contemplation and reflection for me, due in large part to the curious place it held in my own Baptist upbringing.

The story (which you can read here) tells of 40 Cappadocian Christians in the Roman army in the Eastern half of the empire under the rule of the Emperor Licinius, the co-ruler and rival of Constantine the Great until 324. These Christians were put out in the middle of a frozen lake to die of cold and exposure, and told that if they would but recant Christ, they would be allowed to warm up at a nearby bathhouse which had been constructed on the edge of the lake. Eventually, one of the forty did recant, but his place on the lake was taken by one of the guards, who was so moved by the steadfastness of the martyrs that he confessed Christ and joined the other 39 on the frozen lake.

The hagiography of the 40 martyrs usually shows the apostate running for the bathhouse (to meet his death) while one of the guards removes his clothing to join the other martyrs on the ice and make up the number of the company.

The feast of these martyrs, which on the Julian calendar always falls during Great Lent (as a result of which, the "propers" for this feast are contained in the Lenten Tridion, the primary service book used during the fast), seems to have been celebrated within only a few decades of the suffering of these martyrs. Notably, St. Gregory of Nyssa (the brother of St. Basil the Great and one of the three "Cappadocian Fathers") had a formative encounter with the veneration of these martyrs when he was only 20 years of age:

Gregory of Nyssa (335-396), Basil’s brother, was also deeply influenced by the Forty Martyrs. When he was twenty years old, some of the relics of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste were brought to a chapel on the family estate. During an all-night vigil service at the chapel, in honor of the Forty Martyrs, something dramatic occurred. Gregory attended the service half-heartedly at his family’s insistence. Wearied by the long prayers, he snuck out of the chapel and went to bed. Gregory then had a vivid dream in which he tried to enter the church, but the Forty Martyrs would not permit him. It was only with the help of one of them that he managed to escape punishment. This fearful dream left a lasting impression on Gregory who soon afterward devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures and service to God. When Gregory’s parents died, he had their remains buried beside some of the forty martyred soldiers. In his lifetime, Gregory preached two panegyric homilies about the Forty Martyrs. (From Cappadocia History).

Reading the panegyric homilies composed in the memory of these martyrs is almost a crash-course in the whole doctrine of the communion of the saints. Consider the following passage from St. Basil the Great's homily:

The saints didn't have one native land, for they all came from different places. What does that mean? Let us say that they were without a city, or that they were citizens of the world. For just as in the joint contributions at festivals what is brought in by all individuals becomes the common property of the participants, so too the native land of all of these blessed men was common property, and all of them from wherever they came gave to each other what they had brought. Indeed, why should one investigate the native lands that lie on earth when it is possible to form a notion of the nature of their city now? After all, the city of martyrs is the city of God (Heb 12:22). The craftsman and the workman was God (Heb 11:10), the Jerusalem above was free, the mother of Paul, and of those similar to him. But their human pedigree differed one from the other. Their spiritual pedigree was one between all of them. I mean that their common father was God, and that they were all brothers, not born from one father and mother, but that as a result of their adoption by the Spirit they were joined to each other in a one-mindedness through love. The chorus was ready, a huge supplement to those who praised the Lord from ages, not gathered together one by one, but translated as a group...

Here, St. Basil addresses the fact that the 40 Martyrs (as it seems) hailed from lands all over the Roman Empire. In that sense, each of them had a different earthly homeland. In this passage and that which follows us, there is a sense that just as the Roman army had brought them together and made them in to a single group (we may here think of the way in which Roman citizenship was offered as one of the perks at the end of a long career of military service at various points in the Empire's history), so too their enlistment in the ranks of the martyrs had made them citizens of the New Jerusalem. In the aftermath of their martyrdom their veneration was of course firmly established on Cappadocia (where numerous ruins of churches dedicated to their memory can still be found to this day), but it was not limited to merely a local cult: as they had come from many nations across the Roman world, so their veneration and memory spread to every corner of the Christian world. 

For those of us who are converts to the Eastern Orthodox Church from various western traditions, the story of the 40 Martyrs ought to provide comfort, consolation, and an adjusted perspective. I was recently interviewed on the Areopagus Podcast on the question of "The Past in the Present." Among the many issues we addressed were the phenomena of people who, on the one hand, encounter the "Easterness" of the Orthodox Church and find it alien, and the people who on the other hand adopt not only the Church, but all of the trappings of Russian or Syrian culture as well. As St. Basil points out, the 40 Martyrs show us the way forward through this Scylla and Charybdis: They give up an earthly homeland in exchange for a heavenly city; as a result, their earthly homelands are returned to them as their relics are venerated and their commemoration spreads across the Roman Empire. 

As I mentioned earlier, I have my own personal connection with the commemoration of these martyrs: there is a version of their martyrdom which has long circulated in Protestant circles, and is usually found in published collections of sermon illustrations.

As an aside, those among us who were taught to preach in the Southern Baptist seminary tradition will be aware of this genre of literature; each point of your sermon was supposed to have a little story, aka a "sermon illustration" to drive it home. Since pulling fresh and relevant stories out of your own life experience or reading is hard for young preachers (and time-consuming for old preachers), there were books, and later whole websites, dedicated to collecting emotionally punchy stories and arranging them by topic. The problem was that everyone seemed to have access to the same story collection, so if you paid attention, you would notice that every preacher told the same stories. 

In any case, there was a version of the story of the 40 Martyrs called the "40 Wrestlers" which circulated widely in the fundamentalist circles in which I grew up. If you're curious, you can read it here as it appears in the popular non-denominational publication Our Daily Bread. Other versions of this story often misattribute it to the reign of the Emperor Nero (I suspect this is because more people have heard of him). Try as I might, I have been unable to hunt down the "source" of this version of the story--I had thought it might be in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, but it isn't (at least, not in the edition to which I have access). It is therefore something of a mystery to me as to how the story of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste made it into the popular memory of American Evangelicalism while so many other martyrs and saints were forgotten. I suppose it is a testament to the enduring quality of this story that they were remembered at all. As for this story (especially the "Nero" version), it seems to have become a kind of Evangelical "copypasta." A search for the "40 wrestlers story" will turn up multiple examples of the same story, copy and pasted (even to Roman Catholic websites). And along with the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, this was one of two stories of martyrdom from the early church which I was told frequently as a child, and heard frequently from the pulpit in the Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches in which I was raised.

One lovely element of this evangelical retelling is the song which is often put into the mouth of the martyrs as they march out onto the ice:

The forty soldiers stripped off their clothing, fell into four columns of ten each, and marched towards the center of the frozen lake to their death. But as they marched onto the ice, they chanted; “Forty wrestlers, wrestling for thee O Christ, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”

I cannot find the wording of this chant in any of the ancient sources (though there is a good chance I missed it; St. Ephraim the Syrian and St. Romanos the Melodist both authored compositions in memory of the 40 Martyrs, neither of which have I been able to track down as of yet). St. Basil has their prayer as rather more verbose:

"Let us not take off a garment," they said, "but let us put off the old man who has been corrupted through his desire for error. Let us give thanks to you, Lord, as we cast off sin together with this garment. Since we put on clothes because of the snake, let us take them off because of Christ. let us not hold on to clothes because of the paradise which we have lost. What shall we give back to the Lord? Our Lord also took his clothes off. What greater suffering can a slave have than to suffer what his Master did? I should say that we were the ones who took off the clothes of the Master himself. I mean that this was that shameless act of soldiers -- they took off his clothes and divided his garments. So let us delete the written charge against us by our own efforts. Winter is piercing, but paradise is sweet. Freezing is painful, but rest is pleasing. Let us wait for a little while, and the bosom of the patriarch will comfort us. Let us exchange a single night for all eternity. Let our foot burn, so that it may continually dance with angels; let our hand fall off, so that it may be able to achieve access to the Master. How many of our soldiers have fallen in the battle-line, while keeping faith wit ha mortal emperor? But shall we not let go this life for the sake of our belief in the true emperor?... Since it is necessary to die, let us die that we may live. May our sacrifice come before you, Lord, and may we be received as a living sacrifice acceptable to you, burnt up completely by this cold, a beautiful oblation, a new burnt offering, a complete offering, not through fire but through cold... The forty of us went into the stadium; let the forty of us be crowned, Master. Let not even one person be missing from that number. It is an honorable number, which you honored in your fast of forty days, through which law-giving came into the world. After a forty-day fast seeking the Lord, Elias had a vision..." And their prayer went like this.

No doubt, the emphasis on the number 40 here is intended to help us think of the Great Fast, during which this feast always falls on the Julian Calendar.

It is interesting to me, here, that one of the features that the Evangelical version of the story has retained is the theme of crowning, which appears over and over again in both St. Basil's and St. Gregory's homilies on this feast, and is accordingly one of the main themes in its Synaxarion entry. St. Basil even recounts the vision of 39 crowns descending from heaven upon the martyrs (there was no crown for the 40th soldier, who recanted, died immediately, and then was replaced by one of the guards). There is no indication of this in the evangelical version, but the focus on the martyr's crown (Rev 2:10) has somehow survived.

I can still remember my delight the first time I attended a service for this feast day and realized what it was that was being celebrated. It felt like coming home--this had once been an inspirational story from long-ago times; now it was about real people, whose names and faces the Church had never forgotten, and I was joining them in the worship of the Holy Trinity.

Troparion for the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste, in the First Tone:

Together let us honor the holy company united by faith, 
those noble warriors of the Master of all. 
They were divinely enlisted for Christ, 
and passed through fire and water. 
Then they entered into refreshment praying for those who cry: 
Glory to him who has strengthened you! 
Glory to him who has crowned you! 
Glory to him who has made you wonderful, O holy Forty Martyrs!

Joining the Chorus of Martyrs: Culture, Evangelical Copypasta, and the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste

Today, on the Revised Julian Calendar used by the Orthodox Church in America, it is the feast of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. This feast ...