March 9, 2023

Homily on the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (St. Luke of Simferopol)

By St. Luke, Archbishop of Simferopol and All Crimea

(Delivered on March 9/22, 1945)

Today we celebrate the memory of the glorious martyrs of Sebaste.

It was a long time ago, in the fourth century. They were soldiers of the Roman army and professed Christianity. The head of the army demanded that they renounce Christ. They refused, and then they stripped them naked and drove them into the lake. It was a dank March night, the lake was covered with ice, and a cold wind was blowing. For temptation, a bathhouse was built on the shore. The holy martyrs stood in the water until midnight, courageously enduring torment. Only one of them could not stand it and ran to the bath, but on the threshold he fell dead.

Then the light of heaven shone over the lake, and shining crowns fell on the heads of the thirty-nine sufferers. Seeing this, one of the guards threw off his clothes and ran to the lake with an exclamation: “I am a Christian!” And so he completed the number of martyrs to forty. At this time, the light of heaven warmed the water, and they did not freeze until morning. And in the morning they were subjected to terrible tortures and torments, and then they burned them and threw their bones into the river.

The Lord inspired in a dream the Bishop of Sebaste to take the bones of the martyrs from the water. He went at night to fulfill the command of God. Arriving at the river, he saw that the holy relics shone at the bottom like stars. He took them out, and they became the object of veneration of the faithful, their particles were taken to many places.

This is how the holy martyrs guarded their faith in Christ: nothing could stop them in following the Lord. And what is happening with us, weak Christians? Many believers renounced Christ when no one tormented them, did not even threaten them with any torment, when it was simply required to write in questionnaires whether a person believes or does not believe. And being afraid of fear where there was no fear (cf. Ps. 13:5), people declared themselves unbelievers.

Do you know what terrible words the Lord Jesus Christ said about those who deny Him? Whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels (Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26). These unfortunate cowardly people must bring unceasing, deepest repentance to the grave! Repentance, an example of which was shown to us by the saints, for example, the Venerable Barbaros, who was a robber. Thinking about his life and shuddering from his sins, he came to the priest and asked to be allowed into a pig barn, where he lived with the pigs for three years, walking on all fours. Thus he repented, and the Lord vouchsafed him the gift of wonderworking.

The Venerable James, a miracle worker, a seer, fell into a serious crime through the tricks of Satan and, despairing of the possibility of salvation, wanted to return to the world. But a holy monk found him and convinced him that God's mercy to sinners who repent with all their hearts is immeasurable. Then the Venerable James shut himself up in a cave filled with the bones of the dead, and lived in it for ten years, repenting of his grave sin, and was forgiven by God, and again received the gift of miracles.

Here are examples of the repentance of the saints. How will those who apostatize from Christ repent? Will they really only say to the priest in confession: “I am a sinner, father, I am a sinner in everything” - and then they will leave, having received remission? But the Lord Jesus Christ to His holy apostles, and through them successively to us, bishops and priests, gave the power not only to absolve the sins of people, but also to bind them, saying: "What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 18:18).

Are we not obliged to treat the matter of confession with the utmost strictness? Can we give remission to everyone? No, we cannot and must not, for we will give a terrible answer before God for your souls. The Apostle Jude told us, shepherds, how to save you: "To some be merciful, with consideration; but save others with fear, drawing them out of the fire" (Jude 1:22-23).

Many must be saved by fear, for they have no fear of their own, they take such sins as adultery, fornication, and foul language too easily. The Lord said that whoever says to his brother: "Raca" (an empty, stupid person) is subject to the judgment of the Sanhedrin, and whoever says "you fool" is subject to fiery hell (Matt. 5:22).

The Holy Apostle Paul commanded us that no rotten word should come out of our mouths, but only good words for edification in faith, so that it would bring grace to those who hear (Eph. 4:29). People defile the tongue and the soul with terrible curses and hardly notice it. Can we forgive their sins? We will answer before God if we allow them to the Holy Chalice. We must forbid Communion. It is necessary that a person come to his senses, realize the gravity of his sins, think deeply, fulfilling the penance imposed on him.

Previously, heavy penances were appointed for sins. Saint Basil the Great forbade Communion for murderers for twenty years, for adulterers for eighteen years. But gradually the punishments were more and more weakened, and little was left of the prescriptions of the Ecumenical Synods concerning great sinners.

A very long time ago, Saint John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote his canons on the imposition of penance for sins. He was an extremely gentle man and was afraid to impose such severe punishments as were contained in the book of canons, and he weakened them many times over. But what he left behind is so heavy that you cannot even imagine.

With us, penance is immeasurably easier. This cannot go on any longer, for the relaxation of the Christian life, the licentiousness of morals among our people has already reached blatant proportions. And just as in the case of a serious illness, severe surgical operations are often necessary, so we must restore the purity of Christian morals through fear and the severity of imposed penances. But Saint John the Faster in his canons says: “If a sinner conscientiously bears a heavy penance, if he brings deep repentance for sins, then the shepherd can and must reduce the punishment.” That is why we must remember the martyrs of Sebaste, the great saints and venerables, who gave us an example of repentance of extraordinary power.

Such strictness may alienate some from the Church. There are those for whom it is only important to listen to hymns and inhale incense in the temple of God, but they do not delve into their hearts at all and easily continue to commit mortal sins. However, let them depart from us. For the strictness and purity that we will demand from Christians will attract many to us, because they will see that the Church of Christ is a society of pure and holy people who are punished for their sins, and their high morality is observed by shepherds and archpastors. And cleansed by tearful repentance, our Church will shine with the light of God's truth and love. Be all bright, pure and holy! Amen.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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