The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste

Last autumn I was strolling down a street in the old part of Tbilisi, Georgia when I chanced upon a monastery dedicated to the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. “That’s a lot of martyrs in one place, ” I remarked and thought no more about it.

A week later I am in the Caucasus mountains in the village of Mestia which has a world-class museum of ethnography, housing treasures that have been stored by the clans for over a thousand years. Imagine my delight when I come across this icon. Yes, it’s those 40 martyrs.

While Emperor Constantine was legislating religious toleration in the western part of the Roman world, his colleague in the east, Licinius, was persecuting Christians. In 320, when it was discovered that members of the Twelfth Legion stationed in Asia Minor were Christians who refused to renounce their faith, they were ordered to strip and freeze to death on a nearby ice-covered lake. One of their number weakened and headed for a heated bath house but a guard watching over them was converted and joined the martyrs. 

This incident inspired numerous portrayals in icon form, some of them, like the one immediately below, showing the apostate heading for the bath house (where he immediately died of shock) and the guard disrobing.

May 15

1525 Millennialist dreams are shattered at Frankenhausen

 The Protestant Reformation quickly brought to the fore a question that had been vexing Western Civilization since the time of the Greeks: is it ever legitimate to use violence to oppose tyranny?

Martin Luther and his followers initially opposed the notion of violent resistance but it was cautiously endorsed by Swiss theologian Huldreich Zwingli. The next expressions on resistance in the mid-1520s were far more intemperate and violent, coming out of the millennialist tradition formerly represented by the Bohemian Taborites. Thomas Müntzer, once an admirer of Luther’s, turned his back on much the Wittenberg preacher taught, especially his non-violence. Müntzer had come into contact with radicals who sought the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit and who poured scorn on Luther’s biblicism; God, he said, still comes in dreams to His beloved, as he had to the prophets of old. He began to style himself “Destroyer of the Unbelievers” and to speak of the imminent end of the old era and the dawn of a new age of social justice. Müntzer preached to the Saxon princes in May 1524 and warned them that if they refused to use the sword against the godless it would be taken from them but his appeal to German princes to lead his crusade fell on deaf ears. Müntzer turned to the lower orders to be the new Elect, a covenanted people of God; he seems to have been the first in Reformation Europe to make political use of the concept of the covenant, a notion that will prove especially useful to later persecuted Protestants.

When the great German Peasant Rebellion broke out in 1524 he urged his poor followers on to violence and a liberating slaughter that would open the way to the new age of godliness and peace. “On! On! On!”, he told the peasant soldiers at Mülhausen, “Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry. Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! Clang! On! On!”

The climax of the struggle came outside the town of Frankenhausen in May, 1525. An army of poorly-armed peasants flying their rainbow flag met deadly Landsknecht mercenaries hired by Hessian and Saxon nobles. The peasants, entrenched in a wagon fortress of the sort that had been so effectively used by the Hussites in the 15th century, were able to repel the first enemy sorties but the next day they broke under an artillery barrage and a cavalry charge. The rebels were cut down in their thousands, bringing their uprising to an end.

Thomas Müntzer had told the peasants that he would precede them and catch their enemies’ bullets in his sleeves but in fact he ran away and was hiding in bed when he was captured by the forces of the triumphant princes. He was executed shortly thereafter as bloody recriminations against the peasantry were taken across Germany.

May 14

2019 Death of Tardar Sauce

Let it not be said that we live in a frivolous era. One has only to compare the deep philosophical ponderings of Kim Kardashian to those of Marcus Aurelius, or the story-lines of Spiderman films with King Lear, or the lyrics of rap sensation Ski Mask the Slump God with those of Cole Porter to see that the 21st century is indeed a Golden Age of culture.

That is why so many wept when news of the death of Tardar Sauce reached the internet. Since her birth in 2012, Tardar, working under her stage name “Grumpy Cat”, had been amusing millions and her passing clearly subtracted from the sum of human felicity.

Born to a single-parent household — her mother was a calico cat; her father may have been a blue-and-white tabby – she came to the attention of the world as a result of a genetic malformation which gave her a look of perpetual dysphoria. Soon her portrait graced a myriad of computer screens and generated countless memes. Her owners were not slow in accumulating pelf by producing lines of Grumpy Cat licensed merch and featuring her in public appearances and commercials – she was named the Official Spokescat of Friskies. She achieved cinematic immortality by starring in 2014’s made-for-tv movie  Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. A Madame Tussaud waxwork of the fabulous feline was commissioned.

Could an Oscar and a Nobel Prize be far behind? Sadly, those heights were not to be scaled. Stricken by a urinary tract infection, Tardar Sauce passed from this vale of tears on May 14, 2019. When shall we see her like again?

May 13

1940 Blood, toil, tears, and sweat

In the late spring of 1940 things were going very badly for the good guys. Poland, Holland, Belgium, and Norway had been overrun by Nazi armies and France was on the point of collapse. The British Parliament had just replaced Neville Chamberlain, who saw the danger of Hitler too late, with Winston Churchill, who had been warning about the fascist menace for years. Churchill hastily assembled a War Cabinet with the cooperation of the Opposition Labour and Liberal parties and rose to speak in the House of Commons, giving his first address as Prime Minister. His words may serve as a standard against which to measure the rhetorical abilities of our North American politicians in these squalid times.

I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

May 12

1982 A priest attempts to murder the pope

Pope John Paul II was the most well-travelled pope in history, visiting 129 countries, journeying over a million kilometres and speaking to crowds of millions of the faithful. Sometimes his close proximity to large crowds brought him into peril, despite the armoured pope-mobile in which he often rode. In 1981 a Turkish militant, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot the pope twice with an automatic pistol, wounding him severely. Bullets perforated John Paul’s abdomen and he lost three-quarters of his blood; drastic surgery was undertaken but the pope credited the Virgin Mary with saving his life.

A year later, John Paul was visiting one of the Virgin’s most famous shrines, at Fátima in Portugal, when he was again attacked. This time the weapon was  a bayonet and his attacker was not a fascist in the pay of the Soviet bloc, as it had been in 1981, but a Catholic priest who shouted “Down with the Pope, down with the Second Vatican Council”. Juan Maria Fernández y Krohn was a traditionalist cleric who had been ordained by renegade Cardinal Marcel Lefebvre of the ultra-conservative St Pius X Society. The wound he inflicted was not a serious one and the pope continued his visit.

Krohn believed that the pope was a Communist out to corrupt the Church. His radicalism was demonstrated by the fact that he accused his own mentor Lefebvre of being too moderate and by his actions after being expelled from the priesthood. He moved to Belgium where he became a lawyer, famous for slapping a judge in the face and spreading antisemitic propaganda. He was acquitted of an arson attack on a Basque separatist headquarters and accused Spanish King Juan Carlos of murdering his brother Alfonso.

May 11

760 Death of St. Gengulphus

Gengulphus of Burgundy (aka Gengoux, Gengoult, Gangolf, or Gingolph) was a decent sort of fellow. Born into Burgundian nobility (such as it was in that dark age) he served King Pepin the Short at court and on the battlefield. He was known to be a pious Christian, a generous donor to the Church, charitable to the poor, and a good lord to the peasants on his estate. 

It was his misfortune to marry a woman of easy virtue. While Gengulphus was absent on a military campaign, she committed adultery with a priest. When the nobleman was informed of this on his return, his wife protested her innocence but Gengulphus put her claim to the test. He commanded that his wife dip her hand in a spring of water he had miraculously found and, to her horror, the hand was instantly scalded. Being of a merciful disposition Gengulphus merely banned his wife from further relations with him, banished the priest, and proceeded to live a life of charity and chastity.

Alas for the poor husband. The unfaithful wife contrived to have the criminous priest return and carry out a murderous plot against her spouse. The priest attacked Gengulphus as he slept and dealt him a wound which proved fatal, whereupon he and the hussy escaped, only to meet a suitably grisly end elsewhere. (One splendid account of the guilty couple’s fate reveals that the wife was cursed with bouts of uncontrollable farting.)

The Church considered him a martyr and his relics were widely distributed. He is the patron saint of betrayed husbands and unhappy marriages. 

May 10

1886 Birth of Karl Barth 

Karl Barth (1886-1968) was the leading Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, still the subject of intense study and discussion today.

Barth was born to the family of a Swiss Reformed preacher and adhered to the Reformed tradition all his life. He was educated at university by liberal professors such as Rudolf von Harnack and the neo-Kantian Wilhelm Herrmann but turned against such theology. Barth was particularly upset when at the beginning of World War I a number of leading German thinkers, including some of his professors, signed a manifesto supporting the war and the Kaiser. Barth would say of this moment:

An entire world of theological exegesis, ethics, dogmatics, and preaching, which up to that point I had accepted as basically credible, was thereby shaken to the foundations, and with it everything which flowed at that time from the pens of the German theologians.

He would always, henceforth, be alert to any signs of Christianity selling out to contemporary culture, especially nationalism. His Epistle to the Romans, published in 1919 and reworked in 1920, attracted the attention of like-minded intellectuals such as Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich who became proponents of what was known as “dialectical theology”. A website dedicated to his work sums up his views in this way:

Barth believed that Christian theology should derive its entire thinking about God, man, sin, ethics, and society from what can actually be seen in Jesus Christ as witnessed by the Old and New Testaments rather than from sources independent of this revelation. 

In his study Karl Barth kept a copy of the crucifixion painting of the Isenheim altar of Matthias Gruenwald with John the Baptist. Barth often used this painting as an example of how a theologian should work: He should look at the finger of John with which he points toward Christ, and he should remain true to the mission of proclaiming Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth was not a fundamentalist who believed that the Bible was the actual word of God and that every word of the Bible was “true.” Instead, he saw the Bible as a human book, written by people with human failings. But he did believe that the Bible was the source of revelation and the place where people may meet God, because God has chosen to meet them there. (Readers interested in learning more about him may visit

In the 1920s Barth’s career prospered at German universities, first as a Professor of Dogmatics and New Testament Exegesis in Münster, and from 1930-1935 as a Professor of Systematic Theology in Bonn, but the election of Hitler’s National Socialists in 1933 forced him onto a path that would lead to his leaving his adopted country. He was a leader in the group of pastors and theologians who signed the 1934 Barmen Declaration which condemned the racist “German Christian” movement aligned with Nazi religious policies and which became one of the founding documents of the dissident Confessing Church. In 1935 he refused to take an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler and was expelled from his university teaching post and from Germany.

Back in Switzerland at the University of Basel, Barth continued his monumental work of systematic theology called Church Dogmatics which would run to 6,000,000 words in thirteen volumes  but remain unfinished at his death. His fame as a theologian was enormous but he also encountered controversy when he adopted political positions that seemed at times pacifist and insufficiently anti-Communist.

May 9

Given the current unchecked spate of lies and misinformation polluting our society, it may be worthwhile to consult the opinions of Thomas Jefferson on the subject, written in an 1807 letter, substituting the word “newspaper” with the phrase “social media”.

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted so as to be most useful, I should answer “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood.

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.

I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time: whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables.

General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, but no details can be relied on. I will add that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.

Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this: Divide his paper into 4 chapters. Heading the 1st. Truths, 2d. Probabilities, 3d. Possibilities, 4th. Lies. The 1st. chapter would be very short...

Such an editor too would have to set his face against the demoralising practice of feeding the public mind habitually on slander, & the depravity of taste which this nauseous aliment induces. defamation is becoming a necessary of life: insomuch that a dish of tea, in the morning or evening, cannot be digested without this stimulant. 


May 8

1942 The Cocos Islands Mutiny

During the Second World War, millions of troops from the Indian and African colonies of Great Britain served in the wars against the Axis powers. The reason that the contribution of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was so small can be found in this little-remembered mutiny.

The Cocos Islands are an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, half-way between Ceylon and  Australia. Following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan it was deemed to be an important communications link, garrisoned by units of the Ceylon Defence Force and the King’s African Rifles under two British officers. Among the Ceylonese artillerymen were a number dissatisfied with the colonial status of their homelands and who were willing to betray the Union Jack. One of these, Gratien Fernando, conceived a plan whereby he and his anti-imperialist comrades would turn their guns on their officers and any loyal soldiers while signalling to the Japanese that they would surrender the islands to them. (At this time many Asians looked to the Japanese to drive their European occupiers out of the continent. The Japanese were particularly successful in recruiting captured Indian soldiers and turning them into a puppet Indian National Army.)

On the night of May 8, 15 mutineers seized the heavy guns and began their rebellion. It was soon put down by their fellow countrymen in the Ceylonese Light Infantry, but not before one loyal soldier had been killed [his headstone is above]. Quick courts-martial condemned seven to death. At his trial, Fernando spoke of his motives: “I am not so much anti-British as anti-white. I do not have the least grudge against Captain Gardiner personally. would have done the same to any white man. I felt that if I succeeded [in the mutiny] I might do things that would revolutionise the war effort in the East. I wanted to try and get Japanese help. I am in sympathy with the Japanese war aims.” Fernando and two others were hanged in August, the only three Commonwealth soldiers executed for mutiny during World War II.

This outburst of Ceylonese nationalism alarmed the British who took steps to keep that colony, strategically vital and an important source of rubber, happy and well-garrisoned. No Ceylonese combat troops were ever employed by the British after the affair on Cocos Islands.

May 7

1824 Premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

The last, and perhaps greatest, of the symphonies of Ludwig Beethoven (1770-1827) is his Ninth, completed and debuted in Vienna in 1834. It was the first ever choral symphony, combining voice and instruments. Its reception by the 1,000 attendees was rapturous with many standing ovations and waving of handkerchiefs and hats so that the deaf composer could see the approval of the crowd. A critic proclaimed that “inexhaustible genius revealed a new world to us.”

The most memorable part of the symphony was the choral section, “Ode to Joy”, based on a poem by Friedrich Schiller. Its optimism and jubilation have inspired millions and it has become the European anthem.

Whoever has been lucky enough
to become a friend to a friend,
Whoever has found a beloved wife,
let him join our songs of praise!
Yes, and anyone who can call one soul
his own on this earth!
Any who cannot, let them slink away
from this gathering in tears!


Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
must dwell a loving father.

Do you bow down before Him, you millions?
Do you sense your Creator, O world?
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars.

Recently, Baltimore-based rapper and musician [interesting how those are two separate categories] Wordsmith created an original adaptation of “Ode to Joy” for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Wordsmith was hoping to encourage “gender equality, cultural acceptance, and living a purpose-driven life”. Here is his chorus:

Live and love with open mind let our cultures intertwine.
Dig deep down, show what you’re made of, set the tone, it’s time to shine.
We must fight for equal rights and share some common courtesy.
While pursuing all your dreams spread your joy from sea to sea.
We must fight for equal rights and share some common courtesy.
While pursuing all your dreams spread your joy from sea to sea.