THE HOLY FORTY MARTYRS OF SEBASTIA
ABSTAIN FROM MEAT, FISH, DAIRY, EGGS
The Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebastia, Caesarios the Righteous
ST. PAUL’S LETTER TO THE HEBREWS 12:1-10
BRETHREN, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father.
The Lord said this parable, “The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen.”
40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste
In the year 313 Saint Constantine the Great issued an edict granting Christians religious freedom, and officially recognizing Christianity as equal with paganism under the law. But his co-ruler Licinius was a pagan, and he decided to stamp out Christianity in his part of the Empire. As Licinius prepared his army to fight Constantine, he decided to remove Christians from his army, fearing mutiny.
One of the military commanders of that time in the Armenian city of Sebaste was Agricola, a zealous champion of idolatry. Under his command was a company of forty Cappadocians, brave soldiers who had distinguished themselves in many battles. When these Christian soldiers refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, Agricola locked them up in prison. The soldiers occupied themselves with prayer and psalmody, and during the night they heard a voice saying, “Persevere until the end, then you shall be saved.”
On the following morning, the soldiers were again taken to Agricola. This time the pagan tried flattery. He began to praise their valor, their youth and strength, and once more he urged them to renounce Christ and thereby win themselves the respect and favor of their emperor.
Seven days later, the renowned judge Licius arrived at Sebaste and put the soldiers on trial. The saints steadfastly answered, “Take not only our military insignia, but also our lives, since nothing is more precious to us than Christ God.” Licius then ordered his servants to stone the holy martyrs. But the stones missed the saints and returned to strike those who had thrown them. One stone thrown by Licius hit Agricola in the face, smashing his teeth. The torturers realized that the saints were guarded by some invisible power. In prison, the soldiers spent the night in prayer and again they heard the voice of the Lord comforting them: “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live (John 11:25). Be brave and fear not, for you shall obtain imperishable crowns.”
On the following day the judge repeated the interrogation in front of the torturer, but the soldiers remained unyielding.
It was winter, and there was a severe frost. They lined up the holy soldiers, threw them into a lake near the city, and set a guard to prevent them from coming out of the water. In order to break the will of the martyrs, a warm bath-house was set up on the shore. During the first hour of the night, when the cold had become unbearable, one of the soldiers made a dash for the bath-house, but no sooner had he stepped over the threshold, then he fell down dead.
During the third hour of the night, the Lord sent consolation to the martyrs. Suddenly there was light, the ice melted away, and the water in the lake became warm. All the guards were asleep, except for Aglaius, who was keeping watch. Looking at the lake he saw that a radiant crown had appeared over the head of each martyr. Aglaius counted thirty-nine crowns and realized that the soldier who fled had lost his crown.
Aggias then woke up the other guards, took off his uniform and said to them, “I too am a Christian,” and he joined the martyrs. Standing in the water he prayed, “Lord God, I believe in You, in Whom these soldiers believe. Add me to their number, and make me worthy to suffer with Your servants.” Then a fortieth crown appeared over his head.
In the morning, the torturers saw with surprise that the martyrs were still alive, and their guard Aggias was glorifying Christ together with them. They led the soldiers out of the water and broke their legs. During this horrible execution the mother of the youngest of the soldiers, Meliton, pleaded with her son to persevere until death.
They put the bodies of the martyrs on a cart and committed them to fire. Young Meliton was still breathing, and they left him on the ground. His mother then picked up her son, and on her own shoulders she carried him behind the cart. When Meliton drew his last breath, his mother put him on the cart with the bodies of his fellow sufferers. The bodies of the saints were tossed in the fire, and their charred bones were thrown into the water, so that Christians would not gather them up.
Three days later the martyrs appeared in a dream to Saint 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.
There is a pious custom of baking “skylarks” (pastries shaped like skylarks) on this day, because people believed that birds sing at this time to announce the arrival of spring. Forty “skylarks” are prepared in honor of the Forty Martyrs.
The names of the forty martyrs are: Cyrion (or Quirio), Candidus, Domnus, Hesychius, Heraclius, Smaragdus, Eunocius (Or Eunicus), Valens, Vivianus, Claudius, Priscus, Theodulus, Eutychius, John, Xanthius, Helianus, Sisinius, Aggias, Aetius, Flavius, Acacius, Ecdicius, Lysimachus, Alexander, Elias, Gorgonius, Theophilus, Dometian, Gaius, Leontuis, Athanasius, Cyril, Sacerdon, Nicholas, Valerius, Philoctimon, Severian, Chudion, Aglaius, and Meliton.
Martyr Urpasianus of Nicomedia
The Holy Martyr Urpasianus suffered in the city of Nicomedia. The emperor Maximian Gallerius (305-311) cruelly persecuted Christians serving in his army and at his court. Some of the timid of soul began to waver and worship the pagan gods, but the strong held out until the very end.
The dignitary Urpasianus threw down his cloak and belt at the feet of the ruler and said, “Henceforth I am a warrior of the Heavenly King, the Lord Jesus Christ. Take back the insignia that was given to me.” Maximian gave orders to tie Urpasianus to a tree and whip him with thongs.
Later, they bound the saint to an iron grate, and they built a fire beneath him. Saint Urpasianus endured the intolerable suffering with incessant prayer. The glorious martyr was burned alive, and his ashes thrown into the sea.
Saint Caesarius, brother of Saint Gregory the Theologian
Saint Caesarius was the son of Saint Gregory (January 1) and Saint Nonna (August 5), and the brother of Saint Gregory the Theologian (January 25). After studying oratory, philosophy, medicine and other subjects in Alexandria, he went to Constantinople, where he became one of the city's leading doctors. Such was his reputation that Emperor Constantius wanted to make him his personal physician. Saint Caesarius thanked him, but declined.
When his brother Saint Gregory completed his studies in Athens, he visited Constantinople (between 358 and 360), and there he met Caesarius. So the two brothers returned to Nazianzus together.
In 361, when Julian the Apostate became Emperor, Saint Caesarius was summoned to Constantinople to become his physician. Although the evil Emperor was a fierce persecutor of the Church and issued many edicts against Cheistians, he exempted Saint Caesarius from any punishment. Julian repeatedly tried to turn Saint Caesarius away from Christ, but he was unable to do so. Finally, at the urging of his father and his brother, Caesarius resigned his position and went back home to Nazianzus.
When Julian died in the year 363, Saint Caesarius returned to Constantinople once more. Under the Emperors Valentinian (364 – 374) and his brother Valens (364 – 378), he was appointed as treasurer of public funds at Nicaea in Bithynia.
On October 11, 368, Saint Caesarius was miraculously unharmed by an earthquake which struck Bithynia. He was baptized1 and then gave away all his belongings to the poor and began to live a quiet, prayerful life. His righteous repose occurred later that same year (or early in 369). Saint Gregory the Theologian delivered a funeral oration for Saint Caesarius. In his writings he also mentions his brother's wisdom, and how respected he was in his lifetime.
1 At that time it was not uncommon for people to postpone Baptism until reaching maturity.
Righteous Tarasius of Liconium
No information available at this time.
Icon of the Mother of God, “Albazin” or “The Word was made Flesh”
The Albazin Icon of the Mother of God “the Word made Flesh” is of great religious significance in the Amur River region. It received its name from the Russian fortress of Albazin (now the village of Albazino) along the Amur river, founded in the year 1650 by the famous Russian frontier ataman Hierotheus Khabarov on the site of a settlement of the Daurian prince Albaza.
The hue and cry over the Amur Albazinsk fortress became an object of enmity for the Chinese emperor and his generals, who then already dreamed of expanding their influence over all of Russian Siberia.
On the eve of the Feast of the Annunciation, on March 24, 1652, the first military clash of the Russians with the Chinese occurred at the Amur. Through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos the pagans were scattered and fled to their own territory. This victory seemed like a portent for the Russians. But the struggle had only just begun. Many sons of Holy Russia died in the struggle for the Amur, and for the triumph of Orthodoxy in the Far East.
In June of 1658 an Albazin military detachment, 270 Cossacks under the leadership of Onuphrius Stepanov, fell into an ambush and in a heroic fight they were completely annihilated by the Chinese.
The enemy burned Albazin, overran Russian lands, and carried off the local population into China. They wanted to turn the fertile cultivated area back into wilderness.
During these difficult years the Most Holy Theotokos showed signs of Her mercy to the land of Amur. In 1665, when Russians returned and rebuilt Albazin, together with a priest there came to the Amur the Elder Hermogenes from the Kirensk Holy Trinity monastery. He carried with him a wonderworking icon of the Mother of God “the Word made Flesh”, called the Albazinsk Icon since that time. In 1671 the holy Elder built a small monastery on the boundary mark of the Brusyan Stone (one and a half kilometers from Albazin near the Amur), where the holy icon was later kept.
Albazin was built up. At two churches in the city, the Ascension of the Lord and Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, Albazin priests offered the Bloodless Sacrifice. Not far from the city (along the Amur) another monastery was built, the Spassky. The fertile soil produced bread for Eastern Siberia. The local populace adapted itself to Russian Orthodox culture, peacefully entering into the multi-national Russian state, and found Russian protection from the plundering raids of Chinese feudal war-lords.
At Moscow they did not forget the needs of the far-away Amur frontier. They strengthened military defenses and improved regional government. In 1682 the Albazin Military-Provincial Government was formed. They concerned themselves about the spiritual nourishment of the Amur region peoples. A local Council of the Russian Church in 1681 adopted a resolution to send “archimandrites, igumens, or priests, both learned and good, to enlighten unbelievers with the law of Christ.” The Daurian and Tungusian peoples as a whole accepted Holy Baptism. Of great significance was the conversion of the Daurian prince Hantimur (renamed Peter) and his eldest son Katana (renamed Paul) to Orthodoxy.
The servants of the Chinese emperor planned for a new attack. After several unsuccessful forays, on July 10, 1685, they marched against Albazin with an army of 15,000 and encircled the fortress. In it were 450 Russian soldiers and three cannon. The first assault was repulsed. The Chinese then from all sides piled up firewood and kindling against the wooden walls of the fortress and set it on fire. Further resistance proved impossible. With its military standards and holy things, among which was the wonderworking Albazin Icon, the soldiers abandoned the fortress.
The Mother of God did not withhold Her intercession from Her chosen city. Scouts soon reported that the Chinese suddenly began to withdraw from Albazin, ignoring the Chinese emperor’s command to destroy the crops in the Russian fields. The miraculous intervention of the Heavenly Protectress not only drove the enemy from Russian territories, but also preserved the grain which sustained the city for the winter months. On August 20, 1685 Russians were in Albazin again.
A year went by, and the fortress was again besieged by Chinese. There began a five-month defense of Albazin, which occupies a most honored place in Russian military history. Three times, in July, in September, and in October, the forces of the Chinese emperor made an assault on the wooden fortifications. A hail of fiery arrows and red-hot cannon balls fell on the town. Neither the city nor its defenders could be seen in the smoke and fire. And all three times, the Mother of God defended the inhabitants of Albazin from their fierce enemy.
Until December 1686, when the Chinese lifted the siege of Albazin, of the city’s 826 defenders only 150 men remained alive.
These forces were inadequate to continue the war against the Chinese emperor. In August 1690 the last of the Cossacks departed from Albazin under the leadership of Basil Smirenikov. Neither the fortress, nor its holy things, fell into the hands of the enemy. The fortifications were razed and leveled by the Cossacks, and the Albazin Icon of the Mother of God was taken to Sretensk, a city on the river Shilka, which flows into the Amur.
But even after the destruction of Albazin, God destined its inhabitants to do another service for the good of the Church. By divine Providence the end of the military campaign contributed to the increase of the influence of the grace of Orthodoxy among the peoples of the Far East. During the years of war, a company of about a hundred Russian cossacks and peasants from Albazin and its environs were taken captive and sent to Peking.
The Chinese emperor even gave orders to give one of the Buddhist temples in the Chinese capital for an Orthodox church dedicated to Sophia, the Wisdom of God. In 1695 Metropolitan Ignatius of Tobolsk sent an antimension, chrism, service books, and church vessels to the Sophia church. In a letter to the captive priest Maximus, “the Preacher of the Holy Gospel to the Chinese Empire,” Metropolitan Ignatius wrote: “Be not troubled, nor troubled in soul for yourself and the captives with you, for who is able to oppose the will of God? Your captivity is not without purpose for the Chinese people, so that you may reveal to them the light of Christ’s Orthodox Faith.”
The preaching of the Gospel in the Chinese Empire soon bore fruit and resulted in the first baptisms of Chinese. The Russian Church zealously looked after the new flock. In 1715 the Metropolitan of Tobolsk, Saint Philotheus “the Apostle to Siberia” (+ May 31, 1727), wrote a letter to the Peking clergy and the faithful living under the Peking Spiritual Mission, who continued with the Christian work of enlightening pagans.
The years went by, and the new epoch brought the Russian deliverance of the Amur. On August 1, 1850, the Procession of the Precious Wood of the Life-Giving Cross, Captain G. I. Nevelsky raised up the Russian Andreev flag at the mouth of the Amur River and founded the city of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur. Through the efforts of the Governor-General of Eastern Siberia, N. N. Muraviev-Amursky (+ 1881), and Saint Innocent, Archbishop of Kamchatka (March 31), and through the spiritual nourishment which obtained in the Amur and coastal regions, in several years the left bank of the Amur was built up with Russian cities, villages and Cossack settlements.
Each year brought important advances in the development of the liberated territory, its Christian enlightenment and welfare. In the year 1857 on the bank of the Amur fifteen way-stations and settlements were established (the Albazin on the site of the old fortress and the Innokentiev, named in honor of Saint Innocent). In a single year, 1858, there were more than thirty settlements, among which were three cities: Khabarovsk, Blagoveschensk and Sophiisk.
On May 9, 1858, on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, N. N. Muraviev-Amursky and Archbishop Innocent of Kamchatka arrived in the Cossack post at Ust’-Zeisk. Saint Innocent was there to dedicate a temple in honor of the Annunciation of the Mother of God (Blagoveschenie, in Slavonic), the first building in the new city. Because of the name of the temple, the city was also called Blagoveschensk, in memory of the first victory over the Chinese on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1652, and in memory of the Annunciation church at Irkutsk, in which Saint Innocent began his own priestly service. It was also a sign that “from that place proceeded the blessed news of the reintegration of the Amur region territory under Russian sovereignty.” New settlers on the way to the Amur, journeying through Sretensk, fervently offered up their prayers to the Holy Protectress of the Amur region before her Wonderworking Albazin Icon. Their prayers were heard: the Aigunsk (1858) and Peking (1860) treaties decisively secured the left bank of the Amur and coastal regions for Russia.
In 1868 the Bishop of Kamchatka, Benjamin Blagonravov, the successor to Saint Innocent, transferred the holy icon from Sretensk to Blagoveschensk, thereby returning the famous holy icon to the Amur territory. In 1885, a new period began in the veneration of the Albazin Icon of the Mother of God and is associated with the name of the Kamchatka bishop Gurias, who established an annual commemoration on March 9 and a weekly Akathist.
In the summer of 1900, during the “Boxer Rebellion” in China, the waves of insurrection reached all the way to the Russian border. Chinese troops suddenly appeared on the banks of the Amur before Blagoveschensk. For nineteen days the enemy stood before the undefended city, raining artillery fire down upon it, and menacing the Russian bank with invasion.
The shallows of the Amur afforded passage to the adversary. In the Annunciation church services were celebrated continuously, and Akathists were read before the Wonderworking Albazin Icon. The Protection of the Mother of God was again extended over the city, just as it had been in earlier times. Not daring to cross the Amur, the enemy departed from Blagoveschensk. According to the accounts of the Chinese themselves, they often saw a Radiant Woman over the bank of the Amur, inspiring them with fear and rendering their missiles ineffective.
For more than 300 years the Wonderworking Albazin Icon of the Mother of God watched over the Amur frontier of Russia. Orthodox people venerate it not only as Protectress of Russian soldiers, but also as a Patroness of mothers. Believers pray for mothers before the icon during their pregnancy and during childbirth, “so that the Mother of God might bestow the gift of abundant health from the Albazin Icon’s inexhaustible well-spring of holiness.”
This icon depicts Christ as a child standing in a mandorla before His Mother’s breast.
Venerable Vitalius of Castronovo
Saint Vitalius was born in the Sicilian town of Castronovo in the X century to wealthy and pious parents, Sergius and Chrysonίkḗ, who raised him according to God's Word, and saw that he received a good education.
From an early age, Vitalius loved Christ and the monastic state, which is why he fled to the monastery of Saint Philip at Agira (Ancient Agyrion). There he became a monk and received the Angelic Schema after living a life of asceticism, and by making progress in virtue for fifteen years. During this time, he made pilgrimages to Rome, Calabria and other holy places. Finally, he returned to Calabria and engaged in further ascetical struggles on the mountain of Liporachos. There he met the ascetic Anthony and lived with him for a short time. Then he moved from mountain to mountain, until at last he settled in the monastery of Saint Elias at Carbone.
After several years, he went to a cave between the mountains of Turri and Armento. The Saint struggled day and night, praying and ascending to great spiritual heights. Even the wild beasts of the mountain approached him docilely in order to receive his blessing.
There he was visited by Saint Luke of Demena, Sicily (October 13, February 5), with whom he prayed and discussed spiritual matters.1
Later the Saint went to Bari with his nephew Elias and settled on Mount Turri, where he built a small church. The final abode of Saint Vitalius was in the region of Rapolla,where he built a monastery. There he spent the rest of his life, gathering a multitude of monks around him.
Saint Vitalius reposed peacefully in the year 994.
1 San Luca d’Armento (October 13, February 5) was a monk in Lucania, Sicily. He founded the monastery of Saints Elias and Anastasios the Persian (January 22) at Carbone, Italy and served as its first Igoumen. Saint Luke based his Rule for the monastic life on the Greek Typika.