On February 15, 2015, the terrorist group ISIS released a video showing the beheading of 21 of our Coptic Orthodox Christian brothers. When the names of the martyrs were published it was revealed that 20 were Egyptian Copts but the 21st martyr was Matthew Ayariga, a black African from Ghana. It was reported at the time that he was not a Christian but was deeply inspired by the faith of his Coptic friends. When asked by the terrorists what his faith was and whether he denounced Jesus he answered: “Their God is my God,” and thus embraced his martyrdom. A few days later the group was canonized as saints by the Coptic Orthodox Church as the 21 Martyrs of Libya.
The horrific martyrdom of the 21 Coptic men has its precedence in history. The Forty Martyrs of Sebastia, whose feast day is on the fourth Saturday in Lent (March 30 this year), were soldiers in the Roman Army during the persecutions of Emperor Licinius in the fourth century, stationed in Sebastia in Armenia Minor. When their Christian faith was revealed they were ordered to renounce their faith or face death. Neither persuasion, nor promises, nor torture obtained their apostasy. The local governor ordered them to be exposed naked all night on a frozen lake outside the city. A fire and a warm bath were prepared on the bank of the pond to entice them to deny their faith. Out of the forty thirty-nine remained steadfast and died of exposure. Only one was unable to suffer the pain and jumped out into the warm bath. Forty crowns of light appeared over the lake descending over the heads of the martyrs. One of the soldiers on guard jumped into the lake to take the place of the apostate soldier and to complete the number forty.
The celebration of the martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia became one of the most widespread in the East. Their valiant martyrdom is praised in homilies by St. Basil of Caesarea (329-379), St. Ephrem the Syrian (306-373), St. John Chrysostom (347-407), and St. Gregory of Nyssa (330-395). In the Armenian tradition, we have the 11th-century homily by Sisianos Vartabed of Sebastia, spoken in the church with 40 domes dedicated to the forty martyrs. The church was standing until the invasion of Timurlane in the 13th century.
The commemoration of saints and the celebration of their martyrdom serves both as a remembrance of their witness to the faith and as an inspiration for us to witness our faith in our own life circumstances. Pondering on the witness of faith of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia and their modern equivalent of the 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya, what would you do if faced with a similar challenge of faith? Would you jump into the frozen lake to take the place of the apostate soldier? What would be your answer if, like Matthew Ayariga, you were asked who is your God and whether you denounce Jesus?
The Laudate Hymn for the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia
This day hosts of angels rejoice, for your names are entered into the book of life, holy forty [martyrs]; with whom we also sing praises to Christ.
Rays of joy, by divine power you warmed the frozen waters of the lake; and through your prayers filled the vacant spot of the fourth ten.
Saints and beloved ones of Christ, enlighteners of the world, joy of the Church; intercede with the Lord for our souls.