Today the Orthodox churches that have kept the Julian calendar are celebrating the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. They are a group of Roman soldiers who became martyrs for their Christian faith in the year 320 in the city of Sebaste in central Asia Minor.
St. Constantine the Great issued an edict in the year 313, granting Christians religious freedom, and officially recognizing Christianity as equal with paganism under the law. But Licinius, his co-ruler and a pagan, continued to persecute the Christians of the East. He also purged Christians from his own army, fearing mutiny.
According to St. Basil the Great, forty soldiers who had openly confessed themselves Christians were condemned by the prefect to be exposed naked upon a frozen pond near the city of Sebaste on a bitterly cold night, that they might freeze to death. Among the confessors, one yielded and, leaving his companions, sought the warm baths near the lake which had been prepared for any who might prove inconstant. One of the guards set to keep watch over the martyrs beheld a supernatural brilliancy overshadowing them and crowns descending from Heavens on their heads. At once the guard proclaimed himself a Christian, threw off his garments, and placed himself beside the thirty-nine soldiers of Christ. Thus the number of forty remained complete. At daybreak, the stiffened bodies of the confessors, which still showed signs of life, were burned and the charred bones were cast into a river so that Christians would not gather them up.
Three days later the martyrs appeared in a dream to St. Peter, Bishop of Sebaste, and commanded him to bury their remains. The bishop, together with several clergy, gathered up the relics of the glorious martyrs by night and buried them with honor.
Relics were distributed throughout many cities; in this way the veneration paid to the Forty Martyrs became widespread, and numerous churches were erected in their honour. One of them was built at Caesarea in Cappadocia, in the church where St. Basil publicly delivered his homily.
Two discourses in praise of them, preached by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the church dedicated to them, are still preserved. St. Ephraim the Syrian has also eulogized the Forty Martyrs. Historian Sozomen, who was an eye-witness, has left us an interesting account of the finding of the relics in Constantinople with the help of Empress Pulcheria.
The names of the holy martyrs are: Cyrion (Quirio), Candidus, Domnus, Hesychius, Heraclius, Smaragdus, Eunoicus, Valens, Vivianus, Claudius, Priscus, Theodulus, Eutychius, John, Santhias, Helianus, Sisinius, Angius, Aetius, Flavius, Acacius, Ecdicius, Lysimachus, Alexander, Elias, Gorgonius, Theophilus, Dometian, Gaius, Leontius, Athanasius, Cyril, Sacerdon, Nicholas, Valerius, Philoctimon, Severian, Chudion, Aglaius, and Meliton. They are commemorated by the Church on March 20.
Troparion (Tone 1)
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!
Kontakion (Tone 6)
You abandoned all earthly armies,
Cleaving to the heavenly Master, O Forty Martyrs of the Lord.
Having passed through fire and water, O Blessed Ones,
You have fittingly received heavenly glory and many crowns.