The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

(entered heaven in 478)

Dear Susie,

In all honesty, I would sincerely respect your decision to abandon the Church – if you were doing it for reasonable reasons.  But a good-looking, flirtatious, pagan lifeguard is not a good reason (I’m sure I don’t have to explain why).  In any case, before you jump ship to get yourself rescued by a sun-tanned pseudo-savior, take a quick glance at the story behind today’s Seven Sleepers.

These saints are no longer officially part of the Roman Calendar, but their story was so popular and influential during the High Middle Ages, and inspired so many saints who have remained in the Calendar, that it’s worth knowing and considering.

The place was Ephesus (in modern day Turkey), the year was 250, and the Emperor Decius had just instituted the first aggressive, systematic persecution of Christians since Nero’s original persecution back in 64.  All men throughout the Empire were required to burn incense to the State gods.  If Christians refused, they were to be executed as traitors to the State.  Decius himself traveled to many of the imperial cities to put his order into effect.  One of these destinations was Ephesus.

So fearsome was the persecution that families were torn apart, some fathers holding fast while their sons caved in, and vice versa.  The Seven Sleepers were young men (some say boys), who feared for their lives, but not so much as to lose that healthiest of fears for their souls.  They were brought before Decius and bore courageous testimony to the Lordship of Christ.  The Emperor granted them a period of time to repent, during which they liquidated all their wealth and gave it to the poor.  Then they decided to flee to the wilderness around a nearby mountain to wait things out.  One of them, named Malchus, would dress up like a beggar and go into town every couple of days to get supplies and news.

Decius returned and had them sent for.  The cave they were hiding in was found, but when it was searched the Christians were not found.  God had cast them all into a deep sleep and protected the corner of their haven from discovery.  Decius had the mouth of the cave blocked up with stones, and some Christian comrades wrote the account of these events and placed the scrolls, in lead cases, among the rocks.

Two hundred and eight years later they awoke, when some masons had caused the rocks to be removed from the cave by their work in the area.  The Seven Sleepers thought they had only slept one night.  They sent Malchus back into town to get news, and lo and behold the young man saw a cross above the city gate as he approached.  Impossible.  He went to the other gate nearby – a cross there, too.  Amazed, he sought out each gate and found crosses over them all.  Entering the city, he heard conversation in which Jesus Christ was frequently and reverently mentioned.  He marveled at the change in the city.  When he went to buy bread, the merchants saw his money and thought he had found a treasure.  A hullabaloo ensued, and Malchus was brought to St Martin, the bishop, to explain himself, after which the whole population of the city accompanied Malchus to the cave, where the bishop entered and found the Seven Sleepers, radiant in their faithful innocence.  Further explanations were given, the ancient scrolls were found and read, and all glorified God mightily.

The Christian Emperor Theodosius was informed of the marvel, and he came to witness it himself.  The Seven Sleepers exhorted the Emperor, the bishop, and all the Christians of the city to have no fear but trust in the promised Resurrection, then they laid themselves down again, and God took their souls to himself.

For some reason, modern scholars have discounted this story as legend – as if God couldn’t do that kind of a miracle if he wanted to (he has done plenty of other miracles, you know).  But the historicity question aside, the most amazing, and undeniably true, part of the story is the change that had happened in the entire Roman Empire in the course of two centuries: from systematic, energetic attempts at extermination to the adoption of Christianity as the predominant, official Creed.  And the transition had occurred solely through the fidelity of Christians in the face of opposition.  They hadn’t forced it upon anyone; they hadn’t built up an army and swept through the civilized world inviting pagans to convert at the tip of a sword (as happened in the Muslim conquests a few centuries later).  It was with faith and truth and charity that they had transformed the world.

And this same Church is still around today.  What can explain that except the hand of God?  So before you let go of that hand in order to kiss a sandy bronze one, think about the Seven Sleepers and the lessons they have to teach.

Your loving uncle,


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