January 20: Saint Sebastian, Martyr

Late third century
Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of athletes, soldiers, and victims of the plague


<<<       A tough soldier recovers from near martyrdom, only to be killed later for Christ     >>>

The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary are the most universally depicted scenes in Christian art. There is perhaps not a Catholic church the world over which does not house one or the other image, and often both. But today’s saint, St. Sebastian, follows close behind in terms of popularity and ubiquity. The iconic presentation of the wounded saint shows Sebastian’s hands and arms bound to a post, his head tilted toward the heavens, and his almost naked body filled with arrows.

It is a powerfully evocative image. It suggests that the archers took their time. They were not rushed. They did not act in the heat of anger. Criminal psychologists note that killers only cover the faces of victims who they know. Killers normally don’t mind seeing how their victims suffer or react. It seems that with Sebastian there was no hooded executioner. No anonymous hangman. The men in Sebastian’s firing squad must have gazed right into his eyes before they unleashed the tension in their bows. And when their arrows buried themselves in Sebastian’s torso, the archers must have heard his low moans. Perhaps there was an element of recrimination in all of this. Perhaps it was personal.

Sebastian was a professional soldier in the higher echelons of the Roman army. After his conversion to Catholicism, he went to Rome, around the year 300, likely seeking martyrdom. We can imagine that his fellow soldiers understood his conversion as betrayal or disloyalty to the empire, and that this explains the unique manner of the assassination attempt. But, in the end, the attempt was a failure. Saint Sebastian, the tough soldier, survived the arrows, was nursed back to health by a woman known to history as St. Irene, and later earned the martyr’s crown by being clubbed to death. By the year 300 A.D., the Roman emperors’ attempts to eradicate Christianity were too little too late. Nobles, senators, slaves, cobblers, carpenters, generals, men, women, foreigners, and natives had all converted. Men and women of every class and occupation. By 300 A.D., Christians comprised a significant portion of people at every level of society, up and down and around every Roman road. When high-placed soldiers such as St. Sebastian were willing to die for Christ, it was a sign there was no going back to Rome’s pagan roots. All that was needed was a Christian emperor to solidify the change. That would come soon enough in the person of Constantine. Saint Sebastian’s heroic death was a harbinger of a world about to change.

St. Sebastian’s martyrdom was so widely known that he was honored through the construction of a Church on the Appian Way just outside of Rome. Saint Sebastian’s church is still visited by pilgrims today, along with the Christian catacombs beneath it. His legacy carries on!

St. Sebastian, we ask your intercession to fortify all those who are weak in their faith. You gave heroic witness in leaving a high station to accept a near martyrdom, and then returned to suffer and die once and for all. Give us the grace to face our enemies when our weak nature wants to run the other way.

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