Some of the most tragic incidents in war are the occasional “friendly fire” accidents, when soldiers mistakenly fire upon (and often kill) members of their own military force. But these incidents, regrettable as they are, are still understandable in the midst of the chaos and confusion of war. It would be impossible for many of us to imagine a worse case – where soldiers were ordered to purposely kill their own highly respected officers. Such was the case for a number of the saints – men who, despite valiant service to their country as courageous soldiers, were killed at the command of an emperor because they professed faith in Jesus Christ. St. Sebastian was one of those saints.
Sebastian was born in Narbonne, France and is thought to have been educated in Milan. The religious background of his family is not known, but Sebastian became a Christian early in life – a serious Christian, committed to living his life in a way that his actions would show forth the love of Christ. About the year 284, Sebastian came to Rome where he began his military career.
In this same year, the military officer Diocletian became Emperor. His most brutal persecution of all Christians did not fully begin until about the year 303, but his early days as Emperor were marked by decisions which made life very difficult for Christians, especially those in public service. He declared himself an absolute monarch, “semi-divine” and worthy of worship.
During this time, Sebastian had quickly risen to a high position as a centurion with the Praetorian Guard. When he discovered Christians who were suffering imprisonment and persecution, he encouraged them and gave them protection when possible. Through his example and efforts, many were converted to Christianity, among them the Prefect of Rome, who then resigned from his position in order to provide a safe haven for other Christians at his country estate.
It was finally made known to Diocletian that his high military officer was a Christian and would not recognize him as divine or worship the Roman gods. Diocletian was so incensed by this that he ordered the imperial archers to tie Sebastian to a stake and use him for target practice. What a moral dilemma this must have been for those soldiers who admired and respected Sebastian but who feared punishment – even death – if they refused to carry out the royal order. So Sebastian was shot through with numerous arrows and left for dead.
But Sebastian was not dead. A Christian widow, Irene, took him in and, at great danger to herself, treated Sebastian’s wounds and nursed him back to health. He then went directly to the Emperor to protest his treatment and that of other Christians. This time Diocletian made sure that he was rid of Sebastian. He had soldiers club him to death and his body thrown into the sewer. The martyr’s body was recovered by another Christian woman, Lucina, who secretly buried him.
The stories of St. Sebastian’s bravery helped other Christians as they faced persecution. St. Sebastian was listed among the holy martyrs in early 4th and 5th century lists of saints and his memory is celebrated in the Church to this day. His feast day is January 20 (December 18 on the Eastern calendar), the day of his martyrdom (in 288), his “heavenly birthday.”
May God give us grace to be courageous when faced with a hostile environment or abandonment by our friends. May we, like St. Sebastian, be faithful “soldiers of Christ.” Holy Sebastian, pray for us.