After 316, the emperor Licinius decreed a persecution of Christians in the East. He threatened death if they failed to renounce their faith. In 320, forty young Christian Roman soldiers refused to sacrifice to idols and were tried before the tribunal at Sebaste, Cappadocia. The governor tried threats, bribery, and torture to persuade the young men, but they stood firm. He put the forty in prison, where it is said that Christ appeared and encouraged them to persevere.
Incensed by the soldiers’ obstinacy, the governor ordered that they be stripped and left to die standing on a frozen lake. He arranged a fire and warm bath on the shore to tempt them to apostatize. All forty signed a will, drafted by St. Meletius, the youngest, that expressed their faith, unity, and courage:
When we by God’s grace and the common prayers of all shall furnish the strife set before us, and come to the rewards of the high calling, we desire that then this will of ours may be respected . . .For although we come from different localities, we have chosen one and the same resting-place because we have set before ourselves one common strife for the prize. These things have seemed good to the Holy Spirit and have pleased us. Therefore we . . . brothers in Christ beseech our honored parents and relatives to have no grief or distress, but to respect the decision of our brotherly fellowship, and to consent heartily to our wishes, so that you may receive from our common Father the great recompense of obedience and of sharing in our sufferings. . . .
We pray with our souls and with the Divine Spirit that we may all obtain the eternal good things of God and his kingdom, now and forever and ever. Amen.
The young men did not wait to be stripped, but removed their clothes themselves. And together they prayed, “Lord, we are forty engaged in this contest. Grant that forty may receive crowns and that we may not fall short of that sacred number.” After one night’s ordeal, however, one soldier caved, but died of extreme heat in the bath, losing his martyr’s crown. But an off-duty guard, prompted by the martyrs’ courage and a dream, professed himself a Christian and took his place, thus preserving their number.
After three days the governor had the survivors’ limbs broken and their bodies burned. Officials hoped that young Meletius would save himself, but his mother herself lifted him onto the wagon, not wanting him to lose his prize. The governor had the ashes of the forty martyrs scattered into a river, but Christians secured some that became treasured relics, inspiring many throughout the Middle Ages.
The young martyrs of Sebaste have fascinated me since my youth. And their idealism and brotherhood may also intrigue today’s young people and invite them to consider seriously a commitment to Christ. “Young people,” says jour- nalist Paul Lauer, “have enough energy to climb tall mountains of faith, hope, and love. If all we offer them are little molehills, they’ll simply go elsewhere for their challenges.”