March 9, 2024

Encomium to the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (St. Ephraim the Syrian)

By St. Ephraim the Syrian

It is time, beloved brethren, to turn our attention to athletic contests; it is time to tread the spiritual course; it is time to double the gains of the talents. For I said that there were a certain legion of Forty Martyrs, who lived in piety, who immediately from the beginning showed that their company would be famous and revered.

So I have gathered you here, to tell you about the Martyrs, a description of a prophetic image. That is, Moses, after fasting forty days, accepted God's law on Mount Sinai; but they, after sacrificing their bodies, equal in number to the forty days of fasting, enjoyed eternal life. And Moses, when he saw the people seized with rage, was enraged and broke the tablets on the mountain; but they, when they saw the demons seized with rage, kept their faith steadfast. Again for the second time the meek Moses took the tablets in his hands, and thus gave the law of God to all the Jews; but these Forty Martyrs, with a single cruciform seal, proclaimed Christ with themselves to all men.

And how admirable is it, if we find the virtue of the Prophet Elijah to be equal to their virtue? Because Elijah the Tishbite with the strength he got from eating once in forty days, reached Mount Horeb, but they, after tasting the Body of Christ, all forty reached the heavens at the same time. God appeared to the Prophet Elijah, while he was running away, saying to him: "It is a long way that you will go, Elijah;" but He also appeared to the Martyrs, making firm their minds and saying: "Your eagerness for piety is good." The zealous Prophet left his sheepskin on Elisha and boarded the chariot; Christ the Savior also gave His own peace to the Forty Martyrs and ascended in glory.

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It was wonderful therefore, beloved brethren, to see the ornaments of this narrative; for in number they were forty persons, but to each one it was evident that the ornaments had been given by God; they were of various forms and names, but they had among themselves equal the beauty of their common name (i.e. the name Christian). The drought of unbelief did not destroy their everlasting beauty, nor did delusion due to their hunger; no pagan weapon wounded them, nor a pointed arrow defile them, but in the face of it the line of athletes stood both unbroken and strong, fixed on the Savior Christ.

After the brave had girded themselves, they hastened to reach the heavenly Master. Indeed, the challenges they had to face were great, but the rewards of the faithful and beautiful Martyrs were also great; for how else, in the midst of such a great turmoil of persecution, did they remain unyielding and unharmed? For though they were slain in the eyes of men, yet their death proved victory. They crushed the tyrant, and destroyed the delusion, and set up the trophy of victory.

Thus, I think, in the case of the Victorious Martyrs, more miracles have been performed than in ancient history. That is, then the sea was changed into dry land, so that the Israelite people would not be drowned, marching through it; now the Martyrs, who were placed in the waters, were not drowned. Then the bones of Joseph were transported with the Jews; now the Body of Christ united the Saints. Then Aaron's rod followed with the people; now the Lord's hand held the faithful. Then was heard the sound of cymbals, among the waves; now the voice of the Lord upon the waters. Then was the pillar of fire which shed its light upon the thousands of the people; now the Cross of Christ is shining among the Martyrs. Then Moses and Aaron and Mariam were leading; now the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Have you seen how many miracles have been done in the lake, through the athletic Martyrs, superior to the miracles of the Red Sea? Glory and adoration and majesty to Him who made them unbending in such struggles.

Source: Excerpts from the Encomium to the Holy Forty Martyrs. Translation by John Sanidopoulos.

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