Imagine a warm spring afternoon at Ephesus toward the close of the first century. The city's great avenue, the Corso, paved with white marble and lined with the busts of the emperors, is filled with a great throng moving toward the arena where the games are to be held. Soon the great bowl, with its tiers of stone benches rising toward heaven, is filled with a vast multitude hungry for the bloody shows of the arena. Here and there a fountain is playing, and clouds of sweet incense go up to cancel the disagreeable odor of blood and death. Under a purple canopy sits the Roman governor and his staff. One by one the shows are put on—by boxers, javelin throwers, and those who fight with the net and the sword. Then the arena is cleared again, and a great shout goes up, "The Christians to the lions!" That is the chief spectacle, the climax of the shows, for which the pleasure-loving multitude has been waiting. As the thousands are shouting, a door is opened under the last tier of seats; and a small company of men, women, and children is led out to the center of the arena. One is an old man, not far from the grave by nature's path even if he had not been condemned to the in the arena. Another is a handsome young man, strongly muscled, to whom life must have been dear; another a young woman in the bloom of beauty and youth; another a mother with a little child in her arms. Gathered close together, their eyes sweep the stone benches above them, looking in vain for a face of sympathy or of deliverance. Then, while the mob cries for their blood, they kneel together on the sand, and the old man lifts his hands in prayer. When the prayer is finished, they rise from their knees and, standing close together, begin to sing. When the roar of the mob subsides you can catch a few words of their hymn. It is this (II Tim. 2:11-12):
It is a faithful saying:
For if we be dead with him,
we shall also live with him:
if we suffer, we shall also
reign with him: if we deny him,
he also will deny us.
Then a gate on the farther side of the arena is pushed open; and the lions, starved for a week, rush out into the arena and, beholding the helpless Christians, with fierce roars leap upon them and tear them to pieces. A few bloody relics are dragged to a corner of the arena, and more of those who "loved not their lives unto the death" (Rev. 12:11) have won the martyr's crown.
The forty wrestlers were Christian soldiers in one of the legions of the Roman army. The army was on a campaign in the high mountains of Armenia, in Asia Minor, and it was bitter winter. The emperor had issued a decree to the generals of all his armies that on a given day the soldiers must march past the statue of the emperor, do obeisance, pour out a libation of wine, and drop incense on the fire.
At the appointed time the trumpets blew and the army marched past the emperor's statue, where all bowed and poured out the wine and offered the incense, as if to a god. But the forty wrestlers, these Christian soldiers, refused to pay the emperor's statue divine honors. They were renowned for both their prowess on the field of battle and their athletic triumphs in the amphitheater. Their general, who thought highly of them, besought them, for his sake and their love for him, to obey the decree. For a moment they hesitated, as they thought of the sweetness of life and of their families at home—but it was only for a moment. Then they answered their general and said, "For Rome we will fight on any field and under any sky. In the service of the emperor, if necessary, we will die. But we worship no one save our Master, Jesus Christ." Then with great sorrow and reluctance the general pronounced the sentence of punishment decreed for those who refused to worship the image of the emperor.
The forty soldiers were stripped of their armor, which they had honored so in many a hard-fought campaign. Their helmets and breastplates and shields and spears and swords were taken from them. Then they were divested of their undergarments and their sandals, and, stark naked, were driven out into the subzero weather upon the frozen lake. The night had come down, and as the soldiers of the legion sat about the campfires in their bivouacs they could hear the voices of the forty wrestlers as they sang, "Forty wrestlers wrestling for thee, O Christ, claim for thee the victory and from thee the crown."
As the night passed, their song grew fainter and fainter, as man after man succumbed to the cold and fell lifeless on the ice. At length only one survivor was left. Naked and trembling and shivering, he appeared before the tent of the general and said to the sentinel, "I will drop the incense and pour the wine." But the sentinel, who, although a pagan, had been moved by the heroic faith of the forty wrestlers, answered, "Since thou hast proved a coward, I will take thy place."
With that he stripped off his armor and his clothing and went out in the night upon the ice to take his stand among the thirty-nine who had fallen
For a time the soldiers about the campfire heard his voice singing as he caught up the chant of those who fallen: "Forty wrestlers wrestling thee, O Christ, claim for thee the victory and from thee the crown." At length he, too, fell dead upon the ice. When the morning sun rose over the bleak Armenian mountains, that was what it looked down upon—the forty wrestlers who had died for Christ, and from whom they had received the crown.
Under the guard of a thousand armed men, and followed by a vast throng of people, Huss was escorted to the place of execution, the Devil's Place, a pleasant meadow near the lake. As he walked to the stake he recited Psalm 51, and Psalm 31 (1, 5): "In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed. . . . Into thine hand I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth." His arms were fastened behind his back and his neck was secured to the stake with a chain. Then the straw and wood were heaped about him up to his chin, and rosin was sprinkled over them. Offered one last chance to recant, he said, "I shall die with joy in the faith of the gospel which I have preached." His face being turned toward the east, bystanders came up and brutally turned. it toward the west. Then the torch was applied. As the flames leaped up, Huss repeated the prayer of the liturgy:
O Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy upon us;
O Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy upon me;
Thou who wast born of the Virgin Mary—
Then the wind blew the flames into his face, and his voice was stilled forever. But, like him who first died for Christ, being full of the Holy Ghost, he looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the
glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.
As Huss stood chained to the stake, his persecutors prepared for him a triple crown of paper with painted devils on it. Seeing this, Huss said, "My Lord Jesus Christ for my sake wore a crown of thorns. Why should not I, then, for his sake, wear this like crown, be it ever so ignominious? Truly I will do it, and that willingly."
When the crown was set on his head, the bishop said, "Now we commit thy soul to the devil."
"But I," said Huss, lifting up his eyes toward heaven, "do commit my spirit into thy hands, O Lord Jesus Christ."