St. Sabas the Goth

(Martyred A.D. 372)

To the north of the Danube River, the ancient boundary of the Roman Empire, lived the barbarian (i.e. “foreign”) peoples. One of these was the Germanic Goths, who had come down from Sweden and settled near the Roman boundary. The emperors warred to keep them out, but in the third century they broke through and settled in the Roman provinces of Dacia and Moesia (around Rumania). From there they sent out raiding parties into Asia Minor, bringing home many captives as slaves. But these Christian captives taught Christian doctrine to their pagan masters, and soon many Goths asked for baptism.

In 370, one of the Gothic commanders started to persecute the Christianized Goths, and at least 50 died for the faith. One of them was St. Sabas.

Sabas had become a Christian in his early youth, and served as a lay lector to a local priest named Sansala. At the outset of the persecution the officials commanded the Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to Gothic idols. Some non-Christian Goths, thinking to save their Christian friends and relatives, talked the officials into substituting nonsacrificial meat for the required meat forbidden to Christians. But Sabas stood firm. He refused to have any part of this deceit, and declared that those who did so betrayed their Christian faith. He was ousted from the town, but before long was allowed to return.

A year later, when the persecution flared up once more, some of the principal citizens, again eager to protect the Christians, offered to swear to the king’s men that there were no Christians in the village. Sabas again spoke up. “Let no one swear for me,” he cried. “I am a Christian!”

Though twice preserved, Sabas won his crown two years later. A pagan Goth named Atharidus, leading a marauding band of soldiers, attacked the town and arrested Sansala and Sabas. Sabas they dragged naked through briars and beat with sticks. The next morning he pointed out to his tormenters that there was not a scratch or bruise on his body. They saw that it was miraculously true; but rather than relent, they subjected him to further tortures. When he and Sansala still refused to eat the sacrificial meat, one of the soldiers thrust his spear into the lector’s side. Although the blow would normally have been mortal, it had no effect at all. “I felt no more,” he told his captors, “than if that javelin had been a skein of wool.”

Atharidus, learning of Sabas’ immunity to spear thrusts, ordered that he be drowned in the river. At the very river bank, one of the officials, knowing that the condemned was guiltless, suggested that they simply set him free, and allow their leader to think the execution had taken place. But Sabas, ever truthful, would not go along with the suggestion. “Obey your orders,” he told them. Anyhow, he said he could see what they could not: “I see people on the opposite side of the river who are ready to receive my soul and conduct me to glory. They are only waiting for the moment when it will leave my body.”

So the executioners held his head under water until he was dead. Then the angels and saints “across the river” gave him a joyful welcome.

Other Christian Goths wrote up the whole story in a letter they sent to St. Basil the Great.

-Father Robert F. McNamara