“I have come, not to abolish but to fulfil.” … Matthew 5:17
REFLECTION – “In Him the promise made through the shadows of prophecy stands revealed, along with the full meaning of the precepts of the law. He is the one who teaches the truth of prophecy through His presence and makes obedience to the commandments possible, through grace. In the preaching of the holy Gospel all should receive a strengthening of their faith. No-one should be ashamed of the Cross of Christ, through which the world has been redeemed. No-one should fear to suffer for the sake of justice, no-one should lose confidence in the reward that has been promised. The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death. Christ has taken on Himself the whole weakness of our lowly human nature. If then we are steadfast in our faith in Him and in our love for Him, we win the victory that He has won, we receive what He has promised. When it comes to obeying the commandments or enduring adversity, the words uttered by the Father should always echo in our ears – “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased, listen to Him.” … St Pope Leo the Great (400-461) – An excerpt from Sermo 51
PRAYER – Shed your clear light on our hearts, Lord, so that walking continually in the way of Your commandments, we may never be deceived or misled. May your Angels and the FortyHoly Martyrs of Sebaste, pray for us. May the Mother of Our God and our Mother, be at our side and guide our way. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
Saints of the Day – 10 March – The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, Armenia (Died 320). The Forty Martyrs were a group of Roman soldiers in the Legio XII Fulminata (Armed with Lightning) whose martyrdom in 320, for the Christian faith, is recounted in the Roman Martyrology. The Forty Martyr are also honoured on 9 March, particularly in the Eastern Church but the Roman Martyrology places them today, on 10 March.
They were killed near the City of Sebaste, in Lesser Armenia (present-day Sivas in Turkey), victims of the persecutions of Licinius, who after 316, persecuted the Christians of the East. The earliest account of their existence and martyrdom is given by Bishop Basil of Caesarea, that is, St Basil the Great (329-379) in a homily he delivered on their feast day. The Feast of the Forty Martyrs is thus older than Basil himself, who eulogised them, fifty or sixty years after their deaths.
As St Basil tells the story – forty soldiers who had openly confessed themselves Christians were condemned by the prefect to be exposed naked upon a frozen pond near Sebaste on a bitterly cold night, that they might freeze to death.
Among the confessors, one yielded and, leaving his companions, sought the warm baths near the lake which had been prepared for any who might prove inconstant. Upon immersion into the cauldron, the one who yielded went into shock and immediately died. So this lone soldier died, deprived of both earthly and heavenly life.
One of the guards, Aglaius, was set to keep watch over the Martyrs and beheld a supernatural brilliance in the form of halos over their heads, overshadowing them. He at once proclaimed himself a Christian, threw off his garments and joined the remaining thirty-nine. Thus the number of forty remained complete.
At daybreak, the stiffened bodies of the confessors, which still showed signs of life, were burned and the remains cast into a river. Christians, however, collected the precious remains as best they could and the relics were distributed throughout many cities. In this way, veneration of the Forty Martyrs became widespread and numerous Churches were erected in their honour. But in Sebaste itself, a 40-domed Cathedral was built. The Cathedral of Sebastia stood for nearly 1,000 years, until the invasion of Tamerlane and the Mongols at the end of the 14th century. However, the “Forty Martyrs Cathedral” name has survived to this day.
A Church was built at Caesarea, in Cappadocia and it was in this Church, that St Basil delivered his homily. St Gregory of Nyssa was especially devoted to the Forty Martyrs – two discourses in praise of them, preached by him in the Church dedicated to them, are still preserved and upon the death of his parents, he laid them to rest beside the relics of the confessors. St Ephrem the Syrian has also eulogised the Forty Martyrs. Sozomen,a Roman Lawyer and Historian, who was an eye-witness, has left an interesting account of the finding of the relics in Constantinople, in the Shrine of Saint Thyrsus built by Caesarius, through the instrumentality of Empress Pulcheria.
The cult of the Forty Martyrs is widespread all over in the Eastern Church. The Forty Saints Monastery in Sarandë, modern day Albania, which gave its name in Greek to the City itself, was built in the 6th century and was an important pilgrimage site. The Churches of St Sophia in Ohrid (modern-day North Macedonia) and Kiev (Ukraine) contain their depictions, datable to the 11th and 12th centuries, respectively. A number of auxiliary Chapels were dedicated to the Forty and there are several instances, when an entire Church is dedicated to them – for example Xeropotamou Monastery on Mount Athos and the 13th-century Holy Forty Martyrs Church, in Bulgaria. a Church of the 40 saints located in Constantinople.. In Syria, the Armenian Cathedral of Aleppo and the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Homs are dedicated to the Forty Martyrs.
The feast day of the Forty Martyrs falls is intentionally placed that it will fall during Lent. There is an intentional play on the number forty being both the number of Martyrs and the days in the fast. Their feast also falls during Lent so that the endurance of the Martyrs will serve as an example to the faithful to persevere to the end. in order to attain heavenly reward..
A prayer mentioning the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste is also placed in the Orthodox Wedding Service (referred to as a “crowning”) to remind the bride and groom that spiritual crowns await them in Heaven also if they remain as faithful to Christ as these saints of long ago.
Special devotion to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste was introduced at an early date into the West. Bishop St Gaudentius of Brescia (died about 410 or 427) received particles of the ashes of the Martyrs during a voyage in the East and placed them, with other relics, in the altar of the Basilica which he had erected, at the Consecration of which, he delivered a discourse, still extant.
The Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum, built in the fifth century, contains a Chapel, built like the Church itself, on the ancient site and Consecrated to the Forty Martyrs. A sixth or seventh-century mural there depicts their martyrdom. The names of the confessors, as we find them also in later sources, were formerly inscribed on this fresco. There is a beautiful Chapel of the Forty Martyrs in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Acts of these Martyrs, written subsequently, in Greek, Syriac and Latin, are yet extant, also a “Testament” of the Forty Martyrs.
Santa Maria della Querce /Our Lady of the Oak, Tuscany, Italy (1467) – 10 March:
The Abbot Orsini wrote: “Our Lady of the Vine, Tuscany, Italy. A fine Church, located near Viterbo, occupied at present by Dominicans.” The city of Viterbo is located at the foot of Mount Cimino in the province of Rome. Viterbo itself currently has 34 separate Parishes, with 8 religious houses for men and 18 houses for sisters. I can find no reference to Our Lady of the Vine, or Madonna della Vito, anywhere in the entire region of Tuscany. I found two references to Dominican convents. The first was Our Lady of the Oak, or Madonna della Quercia, which also has a Dominican convent attached. The second was Santa Maria dei Gradi, of which only the Church still remains. It was one of the earliest Dominican convents, although it is now used mainly as a retreat house. The Heavenly Mother, like all mothers, does not discriminate between children, for her help is for everyone. We now continue with Our Lady of the Oak, which is almost surely the place referred to be the good Abbot as Our Lady of the Vine. At one time in Viterbo there was a certain man named Mastro Baptist Magnano Iuzzante, who was a very God-fearing devotee of the glorious Virgin Mary. He hired a painter named Monetto in the year 1417 to paint an image on a tile of the most glorious Virgin Mary, holding her Son in her arms. Mastro Baptist then lovingly laid the tile on an oak tree that stood at the edge of his vineyard, near the road leading to Bagnaia and along which robbers often awaited to attack unwary travellers. The image remained there for about 50 years under cover of the oak’s branches and after a while, only a few women who passed by ever stopped to say a prayer and to admire the beauty of a natural tabernacle that a wild vine, which had embraced the oak, had created.
During this period a hermit of Siena, Pier Domenico Alberti, whose hermitage was at the foot of Palanzana, went around the countryside and the nearby towns of Viterbo, saying, “Among Bagnaia and Viterbo there is a treasure.” Many people, driven by greed, started digging there but found nothing and asked for an explanation from the hermit. Domenico then brought them under the oak tree chosen by the Virgin and pointed to the real treasure, the Madonna. He told them of the day he had decided to take away the sacred image to his hermitage and of how it had returned to the oak. Dominico was not alone in this experience. A devout woman named Bartolomea often walked past the oak tree and stopped each time to pray to the Blessed Virgin. One day she also decided to take the tile to her home. After saying her evening prayers, Bartolomea went to bed but woke up in the morning to find the image missing. She at first thought that her family had taken it to place it somewhere else but upon learning that this was not so, she ran to the oak tree and saw what she had already guessed – the tile had miraculously returned to its place amid the tendrils of the vine. Bartolomea tried again but always the sacred image returned to the tree. At first she did not say anything to anyone, to avoid being regarded as lying or insane. Then, in 1467, during the month of August, the whole region was struck by the greatest scourge of those times: the plague. Everywhere there were the bodies of the dead lying in the deserted streets and there was everywhere, great weeping and mourning. Some then remembered the image painted on the humble tile, and, as if driven by an inexplicable force, went to kneel beneath the oak. Nicholas of Tuccia, an historian, said that on one day 30,000 people were there to beg for mercy. A few days later the plague ceased and then 40,000 of the faithful came back to thank the Virgin Mary. The people of Viterbo were headed by their Bishop Pietro Gennari and there were many, from other regions. In early September of the same year another extraordinary event happened. A good knight of Viterbo had many enemies, as will often happen to a follower of Christ. One day he was surprised by his enemies outside the walls of Viterbo. Alone and unarmed and having no way to deal with the mortal danger, he fled into the nearby woods. Fatigued and desperate to reach his destination, the knight heard the cries of the enemy draw nearer and nearer. Eventually he arrived at the oak with the sacred image of Mary, where he fell at her feet with great faith and embraced the trunk of the tree, putting his life into the hands of his Heavenly Mother. The knight’s enemies reached the oak but were surprised that they could no longer see the knight. They began to look behind every tree and bush but not one could see him since he had disappeared before their very eyes. Failing to find him after a long time spent in searching, they gave up in disgust. Then the knight, after thanking the Virgin Mary, returned to Viterbo and told everyone what had happened. Bartolomea heard his tale and encouraged by his words, she described the miracles to which she had been a witness. They told everyone what had happened to them with so much enthusiasm and devotion. The stories spread like wildfire and many people, coming from the most diverse regions of Italy, flocked to the feet of the oak to implore help from the Blessed Virgin.
It was decided to build an Altar and then a Chapel of planks before Pope Paul II gave the necessary permission to build a small Church in 1467. Many Popes and Saints have been devotees of the image, including St Charles Borromeo, St Paul of the Cross, St Ignatius Loyola, Saint Crispin of Viterbo and St Maximilian Kolbe, among many others. On 20 January 1944, during the bombing of Viterbo, a squadron of 12 bombers headed for the oak but upon arriving at their destination, inexplicably veered to the right and the bombs dropped, did not destroying anything outside of the Church, which was empty. The remains of the bombs, 3 large chunks, are kept behind the Altar of the Madonna. In 1986, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Our Lady of the Oak, Patroness of the new Diocese of Viterbo, formed from the union of those of Viterbo, Tuscania, Montefiascone, Acquapendente and Bagnoregio. Even today the Virgin protects her devotees and the devotion to the Blessed Virgin of the Oak is very strong. Every year on the second Sunday of September, the faithful commemorate the “Benefits from the Sacred Image of Our Lady of the Oak.” Many cities and towns, with their brotherhoods, participate in the procession of thanksgiving, called the “Covenant of Love “ The Mayor of Viterbo, on behalf of all participants, renews the Consecration made of old by the whole region, back in 1467.
Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, Armenia (Died 320) – Forty Christian soldiers of the Thunderstruck Legion of the Imperial Roman army who were tortured and murdered for their faith during the persecutions of Emperor Licinius. They were exposed naked on a frozen pond to freeze to death at Sebaste, Armenia in 320 and their bodies afterward were burned.