Sunday, March 9, 2014

March 9 - Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

The Twelfth Legion (historically identified as Legio XII Fulminata) was a historic and legendary group of soldiers that commanded both fear and respect within the Roman Empire. Their thunderbolt emblem immediately identified them to the populace as the soldiers that had been conscripted, trained, and implemented first by Julius Caesar in 58 BCE. They had fought battles that were immortalized in stories told to young men to inspire them to courage and valor. To serve in the Twelfth Legion was to be an integral part of the Roman power system as they served under not only Julius Caesar but, also, Mark Anthony. Thus it was considered unacceptable in 320 when the Twelfth Legion, which was guarding the Euphrates River at the time by order of the emperor Licinius, was found to be harboring forty Christians shortly after persecution of Christians was renewed.These forty were given the opportunity to renounce their faith and when they refused they were condemned to die.

So, they were led to a frozen pond by members of their legion and informed that they would die in the most painful way the emperor could imagine at the time. At the point of their colleagues' swords they were stripped of their clothing and forced to march to the center of the frozen pond so that they might die of exposure. As the forty men huddled together they began rotating who would stand on the outside of the group and who would experience the relative warmth of the interior. They knew that the biting winds would eventually kill them but they comforted each other with prayers and songs. In a moment of diabolical creativity, the guards began building hot baths on the shore of the frozen pond as Licinius had ordered them to do. They called to the huddled Christians that any of them might leave the pond at any time and warm themselves in a bath and by the fire if they would renounce their faith. Finally, one of the Christians broke and ran whimpering to the warm bath. He was willing to sell his faith for relief and though we cannot know his suffering we can look back through history and offer him our pity mixed with knowing compassion.

The remaining thirty-nine were surely shaken by their brother's renunciation but they had little time to reflect upon it as the derisive cheers of their guards soon turned to astonishment when one of the guards dropped his weapon, stripped himself of his clothing, and joined the thirty-nine Christians on the pond. He came screaming his confession of faith and was welcomed with shouts of joy and happy songs. As the once-again-forty martyrs slowly died of exposure they shared their faith with the one who had recently converted at the testimony of thirty-nine men willing to die instead of renounce the Faith that sustained them. That guard received his first instruction in the Faith barefoot on a frozen pond only hours before dying. As the cold began to claim its first victims, the guards became tired of the affair and gathered up the lethargic and unconscious Christians. They burned them alive and scattered the ashes. After they had left, Christians came and collected what remains they could so that they might bury the men who had chosen faith over life and honor.

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