Today, September 22, we celebrate the feast of Saint Maurice (died 287), Martyr of the Church, and the Martyrs of the Theban Legion. This group of over 6600 Roman soldiers, led and inspired by Saint Maurice, were summarily executed for failing to sacrifice to idols and cut down unarmed Christians. The heroic deaths of Rome’s only all-Christian legion, based out of Thebes, is testament to the faith of each individual man, as well as the growing conviction of the Christian Church (and willingness to stand up to persecution and oppression) in the late third and early fourth centuries. We are inspired today by that conviction and sacrifice, to take stock of the role our own individual faith plays in our lives.
The story of Theban Legion has been preserved for us by Saint Eucher, the bishop of Lyons, who died in 494 AD. The bishop started the account of the martyrdom of these valiant soldiers by the following introduction: “Here is the story of the passion of the holy Martyrs who have made Aguanum [modern day Saint Maurice-en-Valais in Switzerland, where the martyrdom took place] illustrious with their blood. It is in honor of this heroic martyrdom that we narrate with our pen the order of events as it came to our ears. We often hear, do we not, a particular locality or city is held in high honor because of one single martyr who died there, and quite rightly, because in each case the saint gave his precious soul to the most high God. How much more should this sacred place, Aguanum, be reverenced, where so many thousands of martyrs have been slain, with the sword, for the sake of Christ.”
Under Emperor Maximian (a colleague of Dicletian, famous for his persecution of Christians), the Roman army was called to march against an uprising of the Gauls. Included in the detachment was the Theban Legion, recruited from upper Egypt and consisting entirely of Christians. They were good men and soldiers who, even under arms, did not forget to “give to God the things of God, and to Caesar the things of Caesar.”
After the revolt was quelled, the Emperor Maximian issued an order that the whole army should join offering sacrifices for the Roman gods for the success of their mission. The order included killing Christians (probably as a sacrifice to the Roman gods). Only the Theban Legion dared to refuse to comply with such an order. The legion withdrew itself, encamped near Aguanum and refused to take part in these rites.
When these news of their disobeying his orders reaching Maximian, he again (and repeatedly) commanded them to offer sacrifice. And again, the unit—all 6000 men—steadfastly refused. Enraged, he ordered that the legion be “decimated”—that is, every tenth man be selected and summarily executed. Following this initial wave of martyrdom, the unit remained faithful to the Lord, and a second “decimation” was ordered. Again, they refused to participate in the pagan sacrifice and idolatry. After the second wave of martyrdom, the emperor warned that every last man would be put to death unless they followed orders.
Throughout this exchange, the captain of the unit, Saint Maurice (often depicted as a Black man, presumably from Egypt), maintained the faith and morale of his troops. He fired the hearts of the soldiers with the fervor and faith by his encouragement. Maurice, calling attention to the example of their faithful fellow soldiers, already martyrs, persuaded them all to be ready to die for the sake of their baptismal vow– to renounce Satan and his abominable service and to worship only God. He reminded them of their comrades who had gone to heaven before them. At his words, a glorious eagerness for martyrdom burned in their hearts.
Inspired by the faith of their leader, the Theban legion sent to Maximian a reply to his threat to kill every last man. Their letter simply read:
“Emperor, we are your soldiers but also the soldiers of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience, but we cannot renounce Him who is our Creator and Master, and also yours even though you reject Him. In all things which are not against His law, we most willingly obey you, as we have done hitherto. We readily oppose your enemies whoever they are, but we cannot stain our hands with the blood of innocent people (Christians). We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you, you cannot place any confidence in our second oath if we violate the other (the first). You commanded us to execute Christians, behold we are such. We confess God the Father the creator of all things and His Son Jesus Christ, God. We have seen our comrades slain with the sword, we do not weep for them but rather rejoice at their honor. Neither this, nor any other provocation have tempted us to revolt. Behold, we have arms in our hands, but we do not resist, because we would rather die innocent than live by any sin.”
Maximian, realizing that their commitment to the Lord was too great to sway, ordered the remainder of the men to be executed. When the soldiers sent to carry out the sentence found the legion—still numbering over 5000 strong—they were met with no resistance. The soldiers had laid down their arms and removed their upper armor to bare their necks. Without complaint, they each submitted to the sword, receiving the crown of martyrdom.
INTROIT Psalm 78:11-12; 78:10
Let the sighing of the prisoners come in before Thee, O Lord; render to our neighbours sevenfold in their bosom; revenge the blood of Thy Saints, which hath been shed. Ps. O God, the heathens are come into Thine inheritance: they have defiled Thy holy temple: they have made Jerusalem as a place to keep fruit. Glory be to the Father. Let the sighing of the prisoners…
O almighty God, grant, we beseech Thee, that this solemn festival of Thy holy martyrs Maurice and his companions, may give us joy; that we may glory in the birthday of the saints, in whose prayers we put our trust. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. R. Amen.
Collect of the Souls
From all perils of soul and body defend us, O Lord, we beseech thee, and by the intercession of blessed and gloriosus ever Virgin Mary, Mother of God, of blessed Joseph, of thy blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and of blessed N. and all the Saints, graciously grant us safety and peace that all adversities and errors being overcome, thy Church may serve thee in security and freedom…
for the Church
Mercifully hear the prayers of thy Church, we beseech thee, O Lord, that all adversities and errors being overcome, she may serve thee in security and feedom.
Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. R. Amen.
EPISTLE Apocalypse 7:13-17
Lesson from the Book of Revelation according to St John the Apostle. And one of the ancients answered, and said to me: These that are clothed in white robes, who are they? and whence came they? And I said to him: My Lord, thou knowest. And he said to me: These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple: and he, that sitteth on the throne, shall dwell over them. They shall no more hunger nor thirst, neither shall the sun fall on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb, which is in the midst of the throne, shall rule them, and shall lead them to the fountains of the waters of life, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.
GRADUAL/ALLELUIA Exodus 15:11
God is glorious in His Saints, wonderful in majesty, doing wonders. Thy right hand, O Lord, is glorified in strength; Thy right hand hath broken the enemies. Alleluia, alleluia V. Eccl. 44:14 The bodies of the saints lie in peace; their renown lasts on age after age. Alleluia.
GOSPEL Luke 12: 1-8
At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: And when you shall hear of wars and seditions, be not terrified: these things must first come to pass; but the end is not yet presently. Then he said to them: Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there shall be great earthquakes in divers places, and pestilences, and famines, and terrors from heaven; and there shall be great signs. But before all these things, they will lay their hands upon you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and into prisons, dragging you before kings and governors, for my name’s sake. And it shall happen unto you for a testimony. Lay it up therefore into your hearts, not to meditate before how you shall answer: For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist and gainsay. And you shall be betrayed by your parents and brethren, and kinsmen and friends; and some of you they will put to death. And you shall be hated by all men for my name’s sake. But a hair of your head shall not perish. In your patience you shall possess your souls.
OFFERTORY ANTIPHON Psalm 67:36
How wonderful God is in his saints: the God of Israel will give his people strength and courage, alleluia.
We beseech Thee, O Lord, take a look at what we present in the commemoration of your holy Martyrs Maurice and his companions, and grant that these gifts are offered in their honor forever assure us the benefit of their intercession. Through our Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God Forever and ever. R. Amen
Of the souls
Hear us, O God, our salvation that through the power of this Sacrament thou mayest defend us from all enemies of soul and body and bestow upon us grace here and glory hereafter.
for the Church
Protect us, O Lord, who celebrate thy mysteries, that holding fast to divine things, we may serve thee with body and soul. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. R. Amen.
PREFACE of the Common
It is truly meet and just, right and for our salvation that we should at all times and in all places, give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God: through Christ our Lord. Through Whom the Angels praise Thy Majesty, the Dominations worship it, the Powers stand in awe. The Heavens and the Heavenly hosts together with the blessed Seraphim in triumphant chorus unite to celebrate it. Together with them we entreat Thee, that Thou mayest bid our voices also to be admitted, while we say in lowly praise:
COMMUNION ANTIPHON Wisdom 3:4-6
Men saw only the pains they endured; God, all the while, did but rest test them; his gold, tried in the crucible, his burnt-sacrifice, graciously accepted.
We whom this holy rite has filled with the bread of life pray, Lord, that we may be succoured by the prayers of those whose festival we are keeping. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God For ever and ever. R. Amen
Of the souls
May the offering of this divine Sacrament cleanse and protect us, O Lord we beseech thee, and by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, of blessed Joseph, of thy blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and of blessed N. and all the Saints, may it purify us from all sin, and free us from all adversity.
for the Church
We beseech thee, O Lord, our God, that thou permit not those, to whom thou hast given a participation of divine things to be subjected to human dangers. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. R. Amen.