It is the 27th of July 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Recently on the show, I introduced you to the Sleepy-headed Emperor, Frederick III, the “Erzshlafmütze”.
And although our story today is not directly related, it is Sleepy Head day in Finland, which is one of a number of European holidays dedicated to people oversleeping. And all of this, not coincidently, lines up with the church’s observation of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.
[2 years ago we briefly told this story but it deserves a re-telling with added details]
The basic outline of the story goes like this:
-The emperor Decius begins persecuting Christians by requiring them to offer sacrifices.
-7 young men decide that they will not and are protected by the locals.
-When Decius brings the heat the men decide to give all their money to the poor and head to a cave.
-The Empire keeps pursuing such that the men decide that they will surrender.
- One night they have a VERY Last Supper-y last supper and then go to sleep.
When they do not arrive to turn themselves in the emperor hears that they have been hiding in a cave. Decius (or an imperial representative) goes to the cave and summons them. Not knowing that they have fallen into a deep sleep, he decides to punish them by having the cave entrance closed. AND THAT’S THAT. OR…
Around 450 the Emperor Theodosius was having an issue concerning heresies regarding the resurrection of the dead. [Not just outright denial, but different ideas as to the state of souls between individual death and the final resurrection].
A guy who owns the old cave decides to build it out and while excavating comes across the lair where the men had fallen asleep. The locals are shocked and one of the formerly sleeping men decides to go into town. He still thinks it's the next day until he starts seeing crosses everywhere. When he goes to make a purchase a crowd gathers to see the ancient coins that the man has. They accuse him of hoarding treasure and he eventually makes his way to plead his case to the Emperor.
Well, all ends well when their story is revealed AND they are able to confirm the resurrection of their own flesh and the intermediate stage (which was a kind of unconscious soul sleep). Everyone rejoices, praises God, and then the men explain that just like Lazarus they were resurrected for a reason and will then die.
Why does this matter?
This story is found in hundreds of variations over almost 1500 years.
This story is found in the Quran (and that version gets a pet dog!)
This story is the foundation for Rip Van Winkle and the entire “sleepers” genre
There is a cottage industry of cave tourism in the Middle East with many claiming to be the “original” (it’s like Rays Pizza in New York… somehow they are all “the original”)
There has been controversy over when to celebrate the Sleepers: June 27 or July 27. Since about 1700 it has been observed on July 27th although the observation was suppressed by the Catholic Church in the 20th century.
In Finland, Sleepyhead Day is celebrated every year on this day. Legend has it that the last person to wake up in the household today will have an unproductive year. The “sleepyhead” is doused with water to wake them up. It has also become a custom to throw a well-liked civic figure into a cold river on the morning of Sleepy Head day.
Ultimately it was pious, imaginative apologetics used by the church. These kinds of stories would also serve as general parables about fidelity in the face of persecution and- especially in the case of this story- would become a literary trope used for religious purposes and to entertain.
We remember the story and its variants on what is Sleepy Head day in Finland and the observation of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus on this the 27th of July.
The last word for today comes from the Gospel of Matthew:
And when he got into the boat his disciples followed him. A Windstorm arose on the sea so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up saying “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got upend rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 27th of July 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who didn’t just wake up after a prolonged sleep, his beard is just that long. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.