The Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste 


Today in the Church we remember the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Church historian Boniface Ramsey offers some thoughts on martyrdom found in various early Church Fathers. In these ideas, we see that the Church did not advocate people to seek out martyrdom, but rather only to accept it if it came to them. To take actions that intentionally provoked pagans or nonbelievers to attack Christians was seen as suicidal, not martyrdom.


Clement of Alexandria goes so far as to say that those who provoke martyrdom are accomplices in the crime of the persecutor, and a synod held at Elvira in Spain in the early fourth century promulgated the following canon: ‘If anyone breaks idols and is killed on the spot, he shall not be received into the number of the martyrs, since this is not written in the Gospel, nor will it be found that it ever happened in the days of the apostles.’ (BEGINNING TO READ THE FATHERS, p 135)

[I think Clement’s and the Elvira Synod’s thoughts should be applied to Russian Patriarch Kirill who claimed that those Russians killed in the invasion of Ukraine will have all their sins forgiven.  The early Church would say “no,” they are  accomplices in the crimes their Patriarch is blessing but are not true martyrs worthy of God’s mercy. It is their attacking others which leads to their death – they are not being sought out for being Christian. Kirill is encouraging his flock to sin and commit crimes and then promising them eternal blessings. This may appeal to and appease Putin but it is wrong and unOrthodox.]


The presence of Christ was complemented by that of the Holy Spirit. According to Cyril of Jerusalem, it was the Spirit, the Comforter, who aided martyrs in their suffering. He would whisper words of hope to them and give them a glimpse of paradise, so that the sufferers would disdain their torments. (BEGINNING TO READ THE FATHERS, p 138)


Tertullian‘s treaty on baptism provides us with the first explicit mention of the sacramental power of martyrdom. For those who for some reason had never been baptized and who died for the faith nonetheless, their martyrdom served as a baptism. The two streams of water and blood that flowed from Christ’s side on the cross (see John 19:34) were symbolic of the two forms of baptism, in water and in blood. And for those who had been baptized in water but had lost their baptismal innocence, their martyrdom served as an act of reconciliation and restored their baptismal sinlessness. (BEGINNING TO READ THE FATHERS, p 139)


An interesting aspect of the early works on martyrdom is their use of themes and images that would later be associated with monasticism. In Tertullian, the prison in which the martyrs await their death is described in terms of separation from the world, seclusion, the desert, solitude, retreat – all of which would eventually have monastic resonances. At the gate of the prison, Tertullian tells the martyrs,


‘You were cut off from the world, and how much more from worldly life and its concerns! Do not be alarmed that you have been separated from the world, for, if we reflect that the world itself is more truly the prison, we shall understand that you have left a prison rather than entered one.  . . .   [There] you are free from causes of offence, from temptations, from the remembrance of wicked things and from persecution too. The prison offers the Christian the same thing that the desert offered the prophets. The Lord himself frequently went into seclusion, so that he might pray more freely, so that he might be apart from the world. It was in solitude, too, that he showed his glory to his disciples. Let us drop the name of prison; let us call it a retreat. Even if the body is shut in, even if the flesh is confined, all things are open to the spirit.’ (BEGINNING TO READ THE FATHERS, p 140)


For Tertullian to be involuntarily imprisoned for being a Christian opens the chance for the believer to deepen their spirituality. He portrays “the world” as a prison which we want to escape, but arrest, imprisonment or execution for being a Christian is the opportunity for escape from this world. The imprisoned Christian is really in a monastic cell, or in the monastic desert, where they can most fully come into a relationship with Christ unhindered by the temptations of the world. He portrays the limits the world imposes on Christians as creating a spiritual retreat for Christians where they won’t be distracted by worldly cares.  Though the Martyrs of Sebaste suffered terribly, their imprisonment in the freezing waters was also their passage to the Kingdom. They did not seek out martyrdom, but accepted it when it was imposed on them.