Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Lent; the Forty Martyrs

To-day's ferial collect (for Tuesday in the second week of Lent) is more than usually difficult:
Perfice, quæsumus, Domine, benignus in nobis observantiæ sanctæ subsidium: ut, quæ te auctore facienda cognovimus, te operante impleamus.  Per...
I would render this as follows, trying to be painfully literal:
Perfect, we beseech, Lord, the benign help of holy observance in us: that, what we know (Thee being the Author) ought to be done, may we fulfil, Thee working.  Through...
(An interesting verb, perficere - from per and facere; the latter root meaning "to make", the former, in this case, "thoroughly" or "very": hence the full verb meaning "to complete, to finish", or quite literally, playing on the word and its derived noun, "to make perfect".)

But what is this "holy observance" that for us ought be made perfect as a goodly support?  Obviously, Lent, or more correctly adhering to its hallowed and sanctifying rituals and rules, we pray is to be for us a wholesome underpinning for our wellbeing, that God may perfect His work in us: and hence the second half of the prayer - what we know is of God, what we know by His Revelation ought be done, we also know we can only fulfill in full measure by His grace, His activity in us: and this can only be achieved by the saving work in us of our One Saviour and Mediator Christ.  We ought therefore look to Him Who is the Author and Finisher of Faith, Who sets the example of virtue and right action, and Who gives the grace that we may run the great race, finish the course, keep the Faith, and win the immarcescible crown.


To-day is also the commemoration of the Forty Holy Martyrs (Ἃγιοι Τεσσεράκοντα), who according to tradition were Christian Roman legionaries who, rather than renounce the True Faith, perished by cold and exposure on a frozen lake near Sebaste in Armenia - and when one of their number apostatised at the last and gave up both his place and (we fear) his access to salvation, the constancy of the remaining Christians so moved the hearts of one of their pagan fellow soldiers that - spurred on to superhuman self-sacrifice by a secret inflow of the Spirit's grace - this erstwhile pagan and true hero thereupon declared himself resolved to live and die as a sudden Christian with the brave martyrs expiring on the ice, and went to join them in death and glory, saved by God from the false empire of darkness at the last gasp, rather like the Good Thief.  

(In the icon, the apostate soldier flees into the black door of a building - having abandoned the Faith, for a short temporal reward he has spurned the endless delights of heaven, and instead shall merit hell: he has escaped out of the frying pan, into the fire! - while, moved by mysterious illumination and inspiration, a bystander divests himself of his apparel to go out onto the icy lake, there to freeze to death and so mount to celestial glory.)

The fact that one of the Forty Martyrs was thus unbaptized illustrates the comforting doctrine that God is not Himself bound by His sacraments, and may by extraordinary means effect the salvation of chosen souls.  This is not to downplay the extreme importance of baptism - one may not without sinful presumption depend upon what is a most unusual and special grant of grace outside of the norm which all are called to participate in through actual sacramental baptism - but rather it must be interpreted as an instance of "baptism by desire" and moreover "baptism by blood", whereby, respectively, a catechumen dying short of baptism has nonetheless an explicit desire (votum) therefor which it pleases the Lord to fulfil extrasacramentally, and likewise a believer as yet unbaptized, when put to death in hatred of the Faith, is as it were bathed in the sacred laver of his own lifeblood, and by his special likeness to Christ in His Passion is extrasacramentally united to Him by a gratuitous gift of grace.
Præsta, quæsumus, omnipotens Deus: ut, qui gloriosos Martyres fortes in sua confessione cognovimus, pios apud te in nostra intercessione sentiamus.  Per...

(Grant, we beg, almighty God, that we who acclaim the glorious Martyrs strong in their confession, may feel and know in what is ours their pious intercession with Thee.  Through...)
We should recall the constancy of these Forty Martyrs throughout these Forty Days, that we may imitate those who endured their sufferings (or rather were miraculously moved to join themselves thereto) and not with the reprobate fall away, that Lent and the Christian life be for us an unfulfilled promise we reject, rather than a saving gift from the Lord.

As we know the saints do ever intercede for us, may we have the grace to recognize in our souls, in our bodies, in our lives and in our labours what great blessings God is pleased to grant us at their plea.

Here are their Kontakion and Troparion (sung in the Byzantine Rite yesterday, on the 9th):
O holy and triumphant Forty Martyrs, you renounced every honour of military life in order to follow the Lord of Heaven.  O blessed ones, you suffered in fire and water, wherefore you received from heaven as your reward the crowns of glory and immortality.
By reason of the sufferings the saints endured out of love for You, we implore You, O Lord and Lover of Mankind, to deliver us from all our pain.

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