The story of these mysterious martyrs unfolds in the city of Sebaste during the reign of Emperor Licinius in 320 A.D. A garrison of Roman soldiers-- 40 in number -- were stationed in this remote Armenian town. While they were bold, courageous soldiers, they were also devout Christians. Upon hearing of this in Rome, the infuriated Emperor issued an edict, stating that those throughout the Empire who would not worship pagan gods would be tortured and put to death. An additional contingent of soldiers was sent to Sebaste to see exactly where the loyalties of these 40 Christians actually stood.
We are told that to a man, all forty soldiers refused to reject Christ. A cruel death was planned for them. It was bitterly cold in Sebaste at this time of the year, and they were forced to remove their clothes and stand along the shores of a frozen lake, looking across the waters at the glowing fires of the pagans -- where they could go if they would renounce the Lord. Still they refused! As death approached, a band of angels came down from heaven and placed crowns on the heads of these dying saints. It is said that one of the Roman guards was so moved by this glorious sight that he removed his own garments and rushed to die himself at the side of these Christian warriors.
The prayer mentioning the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste is placed in the Wedding Service to remind the bride and groom that crowns await them in Heaven also if they remain as faithful to Christ as these saints of long ago.