Not with morbid inquiry as I regard Mother’s Day, but with a contrite heart, I ponder the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste.
I wonder what kind of mother I am. What would I do for one of my own? From where do my motivations arise: Selfishness or selflessness, from my need for my children to validate me or from my need to springboard my children? The answers are complicated.
But you cannot understand my questions without first knowing the story of The Holy Forty. Robust Roman soldiers barely the age of manhood by today’s standards, they fought valiantly for the expansion of the Eastern Empire in the early fourth century. While stationed in Armenia, their general received orders from Emperor Licinius that all members of his Roman army make sacrifice to the pagan gods. Licinius would tolerate no Christians in his forces.
One by one, forty of the soldiers approached the governor of the province of Sebaste proclaiming his Christian faith and explaining that he could not comply with the directive. At first, in exchange for their renunciation of Jesus, they were promised great treasures and favors and temporal comforts.
When these were refused, they were cajoled to recant in order to avoid the disgrace they would bring to themselves, their fellow soldiers and their families.
Not even threats of torture weakened their resolve to gain heaven for their souls. The forty were whipped, gouged with iron hooks, draped with heavy chains and thrown in prison.
Lysias their general visited them, renewing the promises of wealth should they quit their disobedience and follow the emperor’s decree.
They rebuked the general, saying that nothing given to or taken from them could equal their heavenly reward.
The governor thus devised a plan to coerce the soldiers.
It was March in Sebaste and a cruel wind blew across the frozen pond located there. The Christian soldiers were forced to strip off their garments and stand on the frozen pond exposed to the elements. Guards kept watch.
A blazing fire and a warm bath were arranged on the near bank to tempt the martyrs, who prayed for the Lord to give them strength and not divide their number.
One in their rank, however, lost heart and fled. Soon after entering the warm bath, he overheated and died. The irony was not lost on a guard who witnessed it. Stirred by a vision and moved by the Holy Spirit, the man threw off his clothes, converted to Christ and joined his thirty-nine brothers on the ice, restoring the holy number.
The next morning the stiffened bodies of the confessors still clung to life, so guards brought them to shore and broke their legs. Thirty-nine, whether deceased or not, were loaded onto carts prepared to carry them off to be burned.
But the youngest, whose mother had been brought to see him in hopes that she would persuade him to give up, was left lying on the ground. He gave his mother a sign to comfort her.
Gathering him in her arms, much like Mary cradled Jesus after he was lowered from the cross, she held him close,
feeling his breath on her neck.
She could take him home and nurse him to health. She could at least embrace him until he surrendered to his frailty. She could assure him he’d done enough.
But, resolute, she lifted him onto one of the carts. Away he went to face the fires of faith and receive his eternal reward aside his thirty-nine brothers. His mother watched.
I know what I would have wanted to do. It makes me question what kind of mother I am.