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Lenten Journey Day 27 – Friendship
The Armenian Church celebrates the 40 Martyrs of Sebastia during one of the Saturdays of Lent. Although Sebastia is a town in Armenia, the entire Christian Church commemorates the martyrdom that took place there as a lesson in Christianity, perseverance, sacrifice and friendship.
The story of the 40 Martyrs of Sebastia takes place in the 4th century, when 40 soldiers of the Roman army armed with a faith in Jesus Christ, are put to the test: either deny their faith or lose their lives. They refuse to betray or deny their faith in Christ Jesus. They are sentenced to a torturous death by being thrown into a mid-winter freezing lake. The forty men reach out to one another. They hold on to one another creating a human life raft. The water miraculously warms up. God creates an opportunity for the freezing water to give warmth, to give life. In so doing the men are also given an opportunity to be crowned as saints.
There are many dimensions to this story. I invite you to read about it. It appears in many books and articles. For now, I would like to focus on the friendship that existed between these soldiers, particularly because they had the same goal and foundation of faith. Even more, they belonged to a community that brought them together.
We build relationships with others with whom we establish what is called “friendship.” Most of the time, these are limited partnerships; that is, we can talk about everything except matters of faith. We may be reluctant to talk about faith/religion. Why? Because we have been conditioned, we have been taught it is not polite to discuss religion in mixed company. After all, politics and religion are the two ingredients that you never want to take into a friendship. More arguments start because of politics and religion they tell us, than any other subject.
During this Lenten Journey we have looked within. We have looked without. We have built our prayer life with quality and quantity. We understand ourselves as disciplined creatures, assisted by the practices of fasting and of abstinence. Our Christian charity is defined by responsibility and stewardship. And so at the end of this 4th week, we understand that certainly Christianity is not that distorted view that so many people speak about, but there is a purity in Christianity. Not only is Christianity defined by love, but it is the expression of pure love. It calls us to extend and give ourselves to one another. It is sacrifice that manifests itself in friendships and relationships. We love, honor, respect and cherish one another.
Because Christ’s message is so pure, it gives each of us an opportunity to grow in that that same purity.
The forty martyrs found that purity in one another. They were able to hold on to each other and stay afloat in that lake. They were able to find strength from one another. We too are on a journey. It is called life. We look for friends and sometimes shy away because we feel others may not understand our position. Real friendship means that we can put all our cards out on the table. It means we can count on one another. We can lean on others and expect them to lean on us as well. To make this happen we need open dialogue. There is a formula to the dialogue. It begins by talking about the bare essentials of life including our faith, our spirituality, who we are, how we understand ourselves and what commitment we have to love. WE understand quickly now that there is nothing to be embarrassed about when it comes to matters of faith. It is now becoming part and parcel of our being to be able to stand tall and say, “Yes, I am a Christian because I am a member of Christ’s family.” Simply put, we say, “Yes, I am called to love.” Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.
To love, to be able to stand up and help. To be able to sit down with a friend in trouble. To be able to extend a hand to someone in need. And to be able to offer the strength and the courage, to lift up someone who has fallen. You see, Christianity is all about continuing what Christ began.
The forty Martyrs of Sebastia understood the message of Christ as an expression of community. The name of the feast itself is about community. It is not one martyr that we remember, but 40 martyrs. It is a collective. People hanging on to one another, staying afloat, despite the difficulties in life. When we understand this, then we start reaching out to one another. We no longer fear confiding in our friends. Instead we have a healthy and open relationship, and we become true friends. Reaching out, hanging on, staying afloat in the waters of life… Understand that this is how miracles happen, because it at these moments that God heats the waters! We have yet another opportunity to really set sail and reach the dreams that we cannot do alone but certainly possible because of the community collective.
In that same spirit, let us pray from St. Nersess Shnorhali:
Glorified Lord, accept the supplications of your servant and graciously fulfill my petitions through the intercession of the Holy Mother of God, John the Baptist, St. Steven the first martyr, St. Gregory our Illuminator, the holy apostles, prophets, divines, martyrs, patriarchs, hermits, virgins and all your saints in heaven and on earth. And unto you, oh indivisible Holy Trinity be glory and worship for ever and ever. Amen. (24/24)
Photo – 2009 Fr. Vazken Movsesian