January 20 – Saint Sebastian, Martyr – Optional Memorial

All Saints for Today

Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red

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 towards the heavens, and his almost naked body filled with arrows.

It is a powerfully evocative and suggestive 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 the fleshy target of 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. St. 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 crowd by being clubbed to death. By the year 300 the Roman emperor’s 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. St. 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. St. 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, or those unable to resist temptations to falter in any way. You gave a heroic witness in leaving a high station to accept a near martyrdom, and then returned a second time to suffer and die once for all. Give us such strength. Give us the grace to stop, to persevere, and to face our enemies when our weak nature wants to run the other way.

More from Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

ST. SEBASTIAN was an officer in the Roman army, esteemed even by the heathen as a good soldier, and honored by the Church ever since as a champion of Jesus Christ. Born at Narbonne, Sebastian came to Rome about the year 284, and entered the lists against the powers of evil. He found the twin brothers Marcus and Marcellinus in prison for the faith, and, when they were near yielding to the entreaties of their relatives, encouraged them to despise flesh and blood, and to die for Christ. God confirmed his words by miracle: light shone around him while he spoke; he cured the sick by his prayers; and in this divine strength he led multitudes to the faith, among them the Prefect of Rome, with his son Tiburtius. He saw his disciples die before him, and one of them came back from heaven to tell him that his own end was near. It was in a contest of fervor and charity that St. Sebastian found the occasion of martyrdom. The Prefect of Rome, after his conversion, retired to his estates in Campania, and took a great number of his fellow-converts with him to this place of safety. It was a question whether Polycarp the priest or St. Sebastian should accompany the neophytes. Each was eager to stay and face the danger at Rome, and at last the Pope decided that the Roman church could not spare the services of Sebastian. He continued to labor at the post of danger till he was betrayed by a false disciple. He was led before Diocletian, and, at the emperor’s command, pierced with arrows and left for dead. But God raised him up again, and of his own accord he Went before the emperor and conjured him to stay the persecution of the Church. Again sentenced, he was at last beaten to death by clubs, and crowned his labors by the merit of a double martyrdom.

Reflection.—Your ordinary occupations will give you opportunities of laboring for the faith. Ask help from St. Sebastian. He was not a priest nor a religious, but a soldier.

Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed. [1894]

Further Reading: