Forty men disrobed in the bitter winter air and waded waist deep into the lake, joyfully prepared to die for the One who died for them. The icy waters tried unceasingly to cool their fervor, but the men held fast to their faith, which was handed down to them through the Church from Christ Himself. They continually warmed their hearts by singing hymns and prayers of praise as their bodies trembled and convulsed in the freezing waters.
Behind them, soldiers were preparing what promised to be a warm and soothing contrast to the slow, torturous death that lay before them. Tubs with steaming hot water and tables set with tempting foods awaited them all, if only they would simply renounce their faith.
The soldiers stood watch, waiting for the men to come ashore to warm themselves and deny their Catholic faith. Some scoffed at the stupidity of the martyrs, but others watched, silently impressed at the strength the 40 men displayed. And one soldier in particular deeply pondered the scene before him. What could make a man go so cheerfully to such a painful death? He himself was getting quite cold, and could hardly imagine the torture these Christians must have been enduring.
Then, as if receiving an answer to his question, the soldier’s gaze turned towards Heaven. To his great astonishment, he beheld 40 crowns slowly descending towards the Christian prisoners – glorious crowns of martyrdom, whose splendor far exceeded any earthly crowns the soldier had ever seen!
But as he watched these crowns continue their descent, however, one Christian could no longer bear the icy tortures. He left the others, and hurried toward shore. Who could blame him? Surely he shouldn’t have to endure so much to gain a Heavenly reward! Perhaps he would repent sometime later if the persecutions in his country eventually stopped. Yes, he concluded, I can indeed save my life today and my soul tomorrow! But as he emerged from the water toward the cheering soldiers, one abandoned crown ascended back towards Heaven.
By grace, the one soldier was allowed this vision. In an instant he understood what was at stake and suddenly no price was too high to pay for such a glorious inheritance. The soldier flung his armor aside and plunged himself into the water, joining the other martyrs to claim the lost man’s glory for himself.
Meanwhile, the Christian who renounced his faith climbed into the warm tub of water, craving nothing but the temporal comfort and relief it promised. But the shock to his body was so great he died instantly, and the crown formerly prepared for him hovered securely above the soldier’s head instead.
Soon, God, in His mercy, chose to slowly warm the waters for them, putting an end to their bitter suffering. This relief was to be short lived, however, for the discouraged soldiers decided to take matters into their own hands. And when torture was unable to kill the martyrs’ spirit of love for Our Lord, the soldiers burned the men alive. Not one of these men faltered in their faith, and as the smoke rose toward the heavens, their souls were crowned with glory.
While some details of this story vary slightly from one storyteller to the next, the Church has proclaimed these 40 Martyrs of Sebaste as Saints and their story is worthy of reflection. Their feast day falls in March, giving us a prime opportunity to meditate on the 40 martyrs during the 40 days of Lent.
For most of us, the conditions these men had to endure to live and die for their Catholic faith is mind-boggling. We have not had to suffer as they did for the faith, and to think that such a sacrifice might be required of us is almost unimaginable. But beware – many souls have found that sometimes it is harder staying faithful in the little, day-to-day things than it is to stand firmly in the faith in large matters. When it seems nothing is at stake, it is easy to cave in to our temptations. “Maybe just a few chocolate chips,” we tell ourselves. Then, when we cater to our temporal desires and comfort and nothing “bad” happens, it makes it that much easier to cave in again. And again. And pretty soon Lent seems hardly a time for penance at all.
If you have had a hard time completing your Lenten penance in the past, try using these powerful martyrs to help you persevere by keeping these men in the forefront of your mind for the remainder of Lent. Every day you succeed in completing your Lenten penance, imagine a crown being placed on the head of a martyr. And should you fall, repent immediately and jump right back into that icy water! Don’t give up and assume you will do better next year. Remind yourself that like the man who died in the tub, next year may never come.
Lent is not only the perfect time to strengthen your resolve to remain true to the faith through self-mortification, but it is a great time to evangelize to others as well. As Lent goes on, you may find that others may be silently watching you during this season – a neighbor, an in-law, or your child. And your example of mortification very well could be the example Our Lord uses to inspire that soul to shed its worldly ways and join you on your quest to obtain your crown in His heavenly Kingdom!
40 Martyrs of Sebaste, pray for us this Lenten season!
Copyright 2011 Cassandra Poppe