The Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebastia

On the 9th March / 22nd March, the Church commemorates the memory of the 40 soldiers who suffered a martyr's death for Christ at Lake Sebastia (now Sivas in central-eastern Turkey) in 313 AD.[1]

The 40 Martyrs were exceptional soldiers and faithful followers of Christ. Upon learning of this, the pagan governor Agricolas (under Roman Emperor Licinius (c. 263 – 325) who gave strict instructions on the persecution of Christians) ordered the soldiers to be summoned. Agricolas forced them to worship idols, but refused. They were jailed for eight days, beaten with stones and enticed with gifts. After this failed, they were sentenced to death for disobeying the emperor and for witchcraft.

In the heart of winter, they were taken at dusk to Lake Sebastia. The martyrs were ordered to enter the lake, naked. A bathhouse had been set up nearby to tempt them but they then had to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Soldiers surrounded the lake’s perimeter to ensure none escaped. After a while, one of the forty gave up and left the lake, but died on the spot.

As night came, God produced a miracle. So as to comfort and give strength to the martyrs, the lake’s water warmed, melting the ice and thirty-nine crowns came down from Heaven upon the martyrs. This miracle was seen by the only one unsleeping guard, Aglaius. Upon counting only 39 crowns he realised the solider that abandoned this contest lost his crown. Then, the guard woke the others, stripped his clothes and jumped into the lake, shouting, “I am a Christian, too”. At dawn, the Saints were removed alive from the lake. Their legs were broken, thrown into a cart and left to slowly die as they were taken to the last stage of their martyrdom.

Throughout this long execution, the mother of the youngest soldier, Meliton, pleaded with her son to persevere with his martyrdom. His mother then picked him up and carried Meliton on her shoulders walking behind the cart. When Meliton drew his last breath, his mother put him on the cart with the rest of the martyrs.[2]

The bodies of the 40 martyrs were burnt, dead or alive, then thrown into a river so other Christians could not recover their relics. However, their remains were partially recovered and keep in various churches throughout the area.

The names of the martyrs include: Acacius, Aetius, Aglaius, Alexander, Angus, Athanasius, Candidus, Chudion, Claudius, Cyril, Cyrion, Dometian, Domnus, Ecdicius, Elias, Eunoicus, Eutyches, Eutychius, Flavius, Gaius, Gorgonius, Helianus, Heraclius, Hesychius, John, Lysimachus, Meliton, Nicholas, Philoctemon, Priscus, Sacerdon, Severian, Sisinius, Smaragdus, Theodulus, Theophilus, Valens, Valerius, Vivianus, and Xanthias.

Celebrated during Lent
The date of this feast may have been intentionally chosen so as to fall during Great Lent. The reasons:
·        the number forty being both the number of martyrs and the number of days in the Fast;
·        the martyrs’ endurance serves as an example to the faithful to persevere to the end (whether that be during Great Lent or life in general) in order to attain their heavenly reward (participation in Pascha and the Resurrection).

The traditions
A Russian custom is to make forty Zhavoronki, little breads shaped in the form of ‘skylarks’. Skylarks are regarded as the first birds to arrive in Russia, heralding the beginning of spring. As spring occurs around the same time this tradition was adopted to commemorate the 40 martyrs.

6 cups flour (half whole wheat and half unbleached white)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups warm water
2 ¼ tsp. yeast
orange zest (optional)
cloves, raisins, or cranberries for eyes
sunflower seeds or whole almonds for beak

1.      Mix the warm water, yeast, sugar, oil, flour (a cup at a time, stirring well before adding the next), salt and the vanilla or orange zest (if using) together well. Knead about ten minutes. Place in a bowl and let rise until doubled in size.
2.      Divide the dough into 40 pieces. Roll each piece into a long round shape. Tie each piece into a knot. Make one end into the shape of a head for the bird. The other end will be the tail feathers with a knife cut little lines. Put two cloves, raisins or cranberries on each bird for the eye and a whole almond for the beak.
3.      Bake for 20-30 minutes at 3250F or 1700C.

In Romania and throughout the Balkan Peninsula, the martyrs are remembered through eating Mucenici (‘martyr’ in Romanian), a traditional sweet in the form of a figure-8. Its shape suggests the crowns given to the martyrs or to symbolise infinity (∞) making reference to God’s love and His gift of eternal life.

In the north, Moldova, they bake it as a bread, covered in honey and walnuts.

In the south, they make smaller mucenici in a syrup with sugar, cinnamon and crushed nuts symbolizing the lake where the Martyrs were cast.[3]

The mucenici are consumed by the family and given to neighbours or at church after Divine Liturgy.[4]

Symbolism of the ingredients:
·        flour (death)
·        honey (joy of victory)
·        spices, especially cinnamon (suffering).[5]

Mucenici (bread)
1 kg plain flour
100 gr sugar
30 gr yeast
1 sachet vanilla sugar
2 tablespoons of oil
400 ml of water

For the syrup
100 gr honey
400 gr ground nuts

1. Mix all the ingredients for the dough, add warm water and knead. Let the dough rise in a warm place for about an hour and a half, until it becomes fluffy.
2. When dough has risen, take it in pieces, roll and form rods of 1 cm and a half, and make in shape of figure-8, the “martyr”.
3. Grease the pan with a little oil and place the martyrs, put the pan in the oven and leave until they are browned.
4. Meanwhile, finely chop the nuts.
5. When martyrs are ready, remove from oven, brush with honey and sprinkle with chopped nuts.

Mucenici (sweet-soup)
Dough Ingredients:
1 cup all purpose flour
½ cup water
1 pinch of salt

Syrup ingredients:
150 g sugar
lemon zest
rum extract
vanilla extract
8 cups water

For Serving:
250g chopped walnuts
grounded cinnamon

1.      Mix the flour with water and salt. The dough must be a good consistency (enough to be able to shape it). If necessary add more flour.
2.      Lightly flour a working sheet. Make small balls of dough and roll them into strings about 0.2 inch width. Make little circles. Braid them in pairs to make number-8 figures.
3.      Let the shapes dry for 24 hours. If they are not dry enough the following day, you can speed up the process by putting them in a warm oven that has been turned off.
4.      Boil the water with sugar, vanilla and rum extract.
5.      Put the shaped pasta in the syrup and simmer for about 1 hour (until the pasta is cooked), stirring slowly. Some water may be added in the cooking process.
6.      Let it cool and add the grated lemon zest.
7.      Serve cold with cinnamon and chopped walnuts.

In Greece, the 40 martyrs are honoured by the eating of dishes that stress the number 40. These foods can include:
·        baklava with 40 layers of phyllo pastry
·        diary-free pancakes

One ‘new’ idea, borrowed from Greek cuisine, is to make 40 crowns using the Melomakarona recipe.

Instead of the traditional diamond/sausage shape, this biscuit recipe is malleable enough to be made into small crowns. These biscuits are soaked in a honey-based syrup then sprinkled with walnuts and cinnamon to symbolise the sweetness of the martyrs’ victory and reward into Heaven.

* make 1 day beforehand

1 cup squeezed orange
2 cups oil
1 cup sugar
Self-raising flour (amount dependant on dough) + 1 cup plain
Cinnamon (to taste)
1 cup crushed walnuts

2 cups water
2 Tbsp sugar
1 cup honey

1.      Beat sugar and oil, then orange with electric mixer until creamy. Add cinnamon and walnuts.
2.      Mix in plain flour then self-raising flour until dough is not too sticky.
3.      Using a tablespoon, scoop out dough and make into shape of crowns. Place on tray lined with grease-proof paper.
4.      Bake in a moderate oven at 1800C til golden-brown. Leave them cool on wire rack.
5.      After cooled, make syrup by combing all ingredients. Bring to boil then simmer til thickened.
6.      Drop each biscuit in for a few seconds or else it will break apart. Sprinkle with extra crushed walnuts and cinnamon.

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