|Holy Seven Youths of Ephesus (Feast Day - August 4 and October 22)|
By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas
The mystery of death always occupied and puzzled people, who tried to explain its origin and to find, if possible, the way to abolish it. Various religions and philosophies at times gave various explanations, and most often they were contradictory. However, death remained a harsh reality that caused great pain and deep sadness, even without the hope of the resurrection to eternal life.
When the Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, became incarnate and consorted with people, among the miracles He performed, He brought three people back from the dead. He raised the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain and his friend Lazarus. By this He showed He is Lord and the master over life and death. Then with His own resurrection He abolished death and gave people the ability to conquer it and overcome it within the limits of their personal life.
Of course, we also encounter the resurrection of the dead in the Old Testament. But there we don't have the abolishment of death, which is why the righteous of the Old Testament went to Hades. Hades is not a place in the bowels of the earth, "but a particular way of life, different from Hell. It is a foretaste of eternal torments, or we could say a vestibule where souls as prisoners await trial. According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, by Hades we shouldn't understand a place, but a certain state of the soul that is formless and bodiless" (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Life After Death). According to Orthodox Theology, death was not created by God, but it is the result of sin. Man was formed by God with the ability to live for eternity. This is why he can't cooperate with the idea of death, nor can he extend his biological life to his satisfaction. What he wants is to defeat death and live for eternity.
The shocking story of the Seven Youths of Ephesus reveals the truth that death is a great sleep, like sleep is a small death. Christ abolished death, but He allowed the temporary separation of the soul from the body to exist, out of great love and philanthropy, so that evil may not be immortal. And just like the Seven Youths who awoke from their sleep, which was given to them by God's concession for 372 years,* so all people will be resurrected at the Second Coming of Christ.
They lived in the third century during the reign of Decius, who persecuted Christians. Having distributed all their possessions to the poor, they entered a cave and pleaded with God to take them near Him and not allow them to be surrendered to the pagan emperor. When Decius came to Ephesus, he asked for them to appear before him and sacrifice to idols. When he was informed that they "died" in a cave, he ordered that the mouth of the cave be blocked. So they were left to sleep for many years and when they woke up they thought they had fallen asleep the previous night. However, they awoke during the reign of Emperor Theodosius the Younger, at a time when a heresy argued that there was no resurrection of the dead. Thus, God showed with this miracle that in the same way all will be resurrected on the day of Judgement.
Here it should be noted that their features did not alter at all over time, nor did their clothes suffer the slightest damage from the humidity of the cave. In the Small Euchologion of the Orthodox Church, there is a prayer called "The Prayer of the Holy Seven Youths For One Who Is Ill And Cannot Sleep", which is read by a Priest for all those who have problems with sleep. Among other things it says the following: "...as Thou didst make manifest Thy holy glorious Seven Youths, confessors and witnesses of Thine Appearance in the days of the Emperor Decius and the Apostate, having sustained them in the cave for 372 years,* as infants kept warm in their own mother's womb, none having endured corruption, to the praise and glory of Thy love for mankind, and for a testimony and confession of our regeneration and the resurrection of all."
When they woke up from their deep sleep, they felt hungry and one of them went down to Ephesus to shop for food, since by that time the mouth of the cave was unclogged. Then something unusual happened. He was encircled by the inhabitants of the city and was asked where he found that treasure. Because of the money he had on him from the time of Decius, they thought he had found some ancient treasure of coins, and they dragged him to the authorities for questioning. Eventually, after being questioned and investigated, the shocking event became known and everyone went to the cave, full of awe and admiration, to see them all up close. After a short time, the Seven Youths said they were tired and wanted to sleep. And indeed they put their head down and slept until the day of the common resurrection.
Living the way of life as taught by the Church leads to personal communion with the Triune God, and the overcoming of the limits of death in our personal life. Then a person will not only not fear death, but like the Apostle Paul they will "desire to depart and be with Christ".
* More likely it was about 184 years. (trans.)
Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "ΕΠΤΑ ΠΑΙΔΕΣ ΟΙ ΕΝ ΕΦΕΣΩ", August 2000. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.