Soldier Saints: Sebastian of Milan
Resurrection is counting down to Veteran's Day by featuring Soldier Saints. Logan Isaac created this countdown as a way for churches to support and welcome veterans. The excerpt below is reposted by permission from Logan's book For God and Country [in that order], © 2013 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va.
Today's featured Soldier Saint is Sebastian of Milan.
Emperors Diocletian and Maximian ruled the western part of the Roman Empire in the late third century during many persecutions against the church. A large number of Christians were martyred, especially in offices of public service, like officers in the military.
Public servants were expected to be loyal to the emperor to the point of death, just as many modern soldiers swear oaths of allegiance. Christians, however, were intent on obeying the biblical prohibitions against swearing oaths (2) and worshiping other gods. Refusing to worship a head of state was a capital crime.
Sebastian knew Maximian and Diocletian personally from his top post in the Praetorian Guard, the unit assigned to protect the emperors over the years. By all accounts, he was indoctrinated in Milan, Italy, and became a Christian after entering the military as a captain in the emperor’s bodyguard detail.
Not for his own sake, but for the stability of the empire he served the emperors to the best of his ability (though his religion was a secret to them). He did this fully aware of the empire’s persecution of Christians. While protecting the life of the caesars, he covertly encouraged the secret faith of many Christians facing persecution.
He never renounced his role in the Praetorian Guard, instead perhaps using his social position to garner resources or pacify the worst of the low Christians. However, before long, his faith was found out and fellow soldiers loyal to Maximian questioned him vigorously.
Sebastian was accused of atheism, since he refused to worship the Roman gods. A widespread belief was that mass punishment was the gods favored response to impiety. Christian “atheism” was, therefore, a threat to national security.
But Sebastian replied, “Always I have worshiped Jesus Christ for [the emperor’s] health and for the state of Rome, and I thank for to pray and demand help of idols of stone is a great folly.” Indeed, he felt that worshipping the state idols did Diocletian harm, and to pray to Christ for his heath was of greater benefit. Why err by worshiping stone, when we can petition the Son of God for the health of Rome?
This didn’t satisfy the inquisitors, and Sebastian was sentenced to death by being shot full of arrows. He was taken outside the city, tied to a tree and the local law enforcement officers did their duty and eventually left poor Sebastian for dead.
But Sebastian wasn’t finished yet. Irene, a Christian in Rome, discovered that he still had breath in him, and nursed the soldier back to health.
Unable to restrain himself, and not willing to live in secret (and in peace) by taking advantage of his miraculously gained second life, Sebastian sought out his former employer, Caesar, and found him amidst a parade in the sovereign’s honor. When the emperor came within earshot, Sebastian cried out with all he had, showing by his presence that God did, and would, have the last word.
From his perch he shouted:
The bishops of the idols deceive you evilly which accuse the Christian men to be contrary to the common profit of the city, that pray for your estate and for the health of Rome …. Therefore our Lord hath rendered to me life to the end that I should tell you that evilly and cruelly you persecute Christians. (3)
Still with the interest of the city in mind, Sebastian insisted that the emperor's court clerics, who falsely accused Christians of being isolationists and waiting the fall of Rome, were liars. No, he claimed, Christians have the health of their city at heart, possibly remembering Jeremiah’s similar call to seek the welfare of the city. (4) In fact, he credited his pseudoresurrection to Jesus wanting him to tell the emperor that his persecutions of Christians were cruel and evil, and targeted people who were not against the state but in favor of its peace and prosperity. (5)
Diocletian didn’t seem to like this message, so he ordered Sebastian beaten to death, this time for good.
Sebastian is known as the saint who was martyred twice, once with arrows and again with the club, both by soldiers serving their emperor dutifully. Ironically, he became one of their own patron saints.
Heavenly Commander, your servant Sebastian chose to be a soldier of Christ and dared to spread faith in the King of kings, even as he knew of the persecution of his brothers and sisters in faith. In a world of systemic injustice in which we ourselves often bear indirect complicity in evil, Sebastian gives us an example by which to live our lives despite the ever-present burden of sin. Lord, give us the eyes to see and ears to hear the painful truth of the church’s sins of commission and omission, to acknowledge the sinner and saint in each of us and in our neighbor. Give us the faith to be still when you whisper reassuringly but responsive when you beckon urgently, through your son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Two asterisks here indicate that Sebastian was martyred twice-once left for dead, and then killed.
2. Matthew 5:33-35; James 5: 12.
3. http://www.catholic-saints.net/saints/st-sebasttan.php, retrieved Mav 21, 2013.
4, Jeremiah 2.9:7
5. This was the call of Jeremiah 29:7 to Israel in another, earlier, empire-Babylon.