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St Sebastian

January 20, 2011

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The name Sebastian means ’divine’ in Greek. This Sebastian was a Christian saint and martyr, who is said to have been killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians in around the year 288. It is believed he was a catechumen and received his baptism “by blood”. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post, shot with arrows and left for dead. However, he was rescued and healed by Saint Irene of Rome. He further challenged the emperor and was finally clubbed to death, his body thrown into a sewer. Sebastian was known to have encouraged in the faith two Christian prisoners due for martyrdom, Mark and Marcellian, who were bewailed and entreated by their family to forswear Christ and offer token sacrifice. Because of Sebastian they remained steadfast. The details of Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom were first elaborated by Ambrose of Milan in a sermon on Psalm 118. Ambrose stated that Sebastian came from Milan, that he was a soldier in the imperial guard when he was martyred, and that he was already venerated there in the 4th century. Considering that so little is known of Sebastian, it is amazing how popular a figure he is in western art. Pictures or statues of him being shot by arrows have been crafted by numerous artists, and he remains a popular icon. We can say that this is because Sebastian, like St George and St Martin, was one of a class of ‘military martyrs and soldier saints’ of the early Christian Church whose cults originated in the 4th century and culminated at the end of the Middle Ages. Details of their martyrdom may provoke some skepticism among modern readers, but certain consistent patterns emerge that are revealing of Christian attitudes. Such a saint was an “athlete for Christ” and a "guardian of the heavens". In Catholicism, Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes as well as the patron saint of archers. In the middle ages he was also popular because he was a guardian of the community against plague.
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