St Sabas (Sava) was a Goth (in the traditional sense of that word) living in in Buzău river valley in the Wallachia region of what is now Rumania. The Arian bishop Wulfilas had preached Christianity among the Goths, and St Sabas was brought up a Christian.
In 370 the Gothic King Athanaric (probably under the influence of pagan priests) set about persecuting the Christian population and insisting that they should eat meat offered to idols. Pagans and Christians lived together in Wallachia, and were frequently connected by ties of kinship and friendship, and many pagans sought to protect their Christian friends and relations by offering them ordinary meat instead of meat offered to idols (thereby respecting Christian consciences), and then pretending to the authorities that the Christians had been obedient to the King’s edict.
The whole question of eating meat offered to idols is, of course, one that recurs in St Paul’s epistles, in which Paul takes the line that it is completely harmless for Christians to eat meat offered to idols, and that eating such meat in no way implies participation in idolatry, but that Gentiles Christians should be careful not to offend the sensibilities of converts from Judaism who might be scandalized if food of this kind were served up.
In Late Antiquity the situation was a little different – especially during times of persecution. In such circumstances, to eat food offered to idols could very well appear as complicity in the cult of the idol in question, and, in the context of a royal edict to participate in pagan religion by consuming sacrificial meat, was clearly incompatible with strict Christian observance.
The majority of Gothic Christians in Wallachia seem to have regarded the compromise afforded by their pagan friends as acceptable, and it is difficult to blame them for viewing the matter in this practical fashion. Sabas, however, was a man blessed with the zeal and clarity of vision of the true “confessor”, and believed that it was the duty of the Christian to profess the true faith openly and unreservedly without resorting to technicalities to escape the vocation to martyrdom.
The persecution grew more intense, Sabas was finally arrested along with a priest called Sapsal. They were dragged naked into the street, and St Sabas was compelled to walk attached to the back of a cart – still naked – over thorns and briars as the soldiers beat him with switches and staves. When they reached the city next morning, Sabas was found to be without injury, and announced to his oppressors “Look at my body, and see whether there are any traces of the thorns or of your blows”.
Undeterred, the soldiers proceeded to stretch Sabas on the axles of a cart and to spend the entire day beating him (which must have been exhausting even for the soldiers, let alone for the courageous Sabas). A pious woman set him free during the night and took him into her home to help with the housework, but the soldiers were not finished with him, and, when day came, they located Sabas and suspended him from the lintel of the house, taunting him with food offered to idols and pledging to release both Sabas and the priest Sapsal if only they would consent to eat it.
Sapsal’s response to the soldiers was unequivocal: “We would prefer that Atharid [the commander] crucify us, than to eat meat defiled by devils”. Sabas asked who had sent the food, and, being told it had been furnished by “Master Atharid”, replied with characteristic boldness: “There is only one Master, God, who is in Heaven”. Duly enraged, one of the servants stuck his spear into Sabas’s chest, but, impervious as ever to torture and violence, Sabas pronounced that “your blow felt as if you had struck me with soft wool”.
Reluctant to give up, Atharid now decided that drowning might be the best policy, and had Sabas led to the River Mussova (Buzău) for that purpose. The servants who were entrusted with this task felt that Sabas was innocent and resolved to set him free, but Sabas, filled with that disconcerting desire for martyrdom which we find in the great martyrs of Late Antiquity from St Ignatius of Antioch onward, insisted “do as you are commanded! For I see angels coming with glory to receive my soul!”
Left with very little choice (seeing that Sabas was as insistent on being martyred as Atharid was on martyring him), the servants attached a large beam of wood to Sabas’s neck (they must have realized by now that it was going to take quite a lot to kill him), and cast him into the river.
St Sabas was martyred on April 12, 372, at the age of thirty-eight, and his relics were brought to Cappadocia where they were revered by St Basil the Great. His memorial is celebrated in the Catholic Church on April 12th.