Thursday, March 08, 2007

Thoughts on the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste

[Crossposted from LiveJournal.]

It was brought to my attention Tuesday night that tomorrow, Friday, is the day on which we Orthodox commemorate the memory of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. This is particularly interesting to me because they had been on my mind on and off all day long.

The reason has to do with the new treadmill I mentioned assembling in the garage a couple weeks ago. After running a couple miles on it for the first time and noticing a convenient blank spot on the wall in front of me, I quickly decided I would do well to fill the spot with an icon. (There he goes again. Always about the icons!)

I purposed to place there an icon of the Theotokos, Mary, the Mother of God, as a reminder that flesh and God met in the person of Christ, a certification (as I've mentioned before) that God seeks to transform every part of us, not just our souls, into something magnificent. Why do we (I occasionally wonder) seek to limit God by offering Him only our souls and not our bodies, as if the exercise we do is selfishly only for ourselves, for our own health, or even for our own vanity, and not to His glory?

Well, in a hurry to rush down the stairs and get a late five-mile run started about a week ago, I grabbed the first interesting icon I could find that was small enough to put in the spot. Unable to find a "convenient" icon of Saint Mary, I grabbed one of the Forty Martyrs, popped it up on the wall, and started my run.

Of interesting personal note to me is that amongst these forty was a Theophilus. This is the name I selected at the time of my entrance into the Orthodox Church, a rather acceptable "greekization" of my given name. This is not the particular Theophilus whom I consider to be my patron, and, granted, with forty folks in there, the chances of your name NOT being represented in one form or another is rather slim, but I always do wonder which one in the crowd there is him. It gives me something worthwhile to ponder.

Let me give some background on these men. They were Roman soldiers in the early 300s. Recall that there had already been one Christian emperor by this point, but it was still five or ten years before Emperor Constantine would issue the Edict of Milan and legitimize Christianity. So, at this point, persecution was renewed and open season was announced once again on the people of the Church. Having a whopping half of a centuria of Roman soldiers confessing Christ at a time when the Emperor was actively seeking to eradicate such folks proved somewhat problematic for the local military officials, and so the commander of the group ordered them to recant or be discharged dishonorably. One of the forty suggested that the commander remove not only their commission, but their very lives, saying, "Nothing is dearer or of greater honor to us than Christ our God."

After some torture, they were eventually placed in a freezing lake in the winter. Those soldiers who were overseeing the final torture lit warm fires and taunted and tempted the martyrs to come join them in the warmth of the fire if only they would deny Christ. One eventually did so, but on seeing the devotion of the remaining thirty-nine and being moved by it, one of the torturers shed his clothing and joined the remaining soldiers, bringing the total back to forty, and thus identifying himself with the Christians as opposed to the sadists as the final act of his earthly journey.

All forty of course perished as the temperature overcame them, choosing devotion to Christ over lust for personal comfort.

...Which brings me to the treadmill.

When I'm in the middle of a five-mile run and I'm huffing and puffing and thinking of pressing the STOP button and calling it a night, whining, "This aches!" or, "I'm tired and sweaty," I look up for a moment and then immediately think to myself, "Shut up, Jeff." They accepted death in the elements and I can't handle five miles of effort? Oh, please.

Shut up, Jeff, indeed. For the sake of these forty, may their lives speak for themselves as they continue to pray for our growth and renewal in and for God's glory.