Although today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (happy feast day St. Paulers in South Akron) here is presented a pious reflection on the life of St. Sebastian (January 20th) which was presented as a homily for our feast day this year.
A soldier lays on his bed; a cot perhaps really. And though he put in a full, difficult day, he is wide awake. He cannot fall asleep. His military brain is on alert. It isn’t that he has a troubled conscience. In fact, his conscience is quite at peace. Just because something is legal or illegal does not mean that it is moral or immoral. He is a soldier and he is supposed to obey. But what about when obedience goes against truth, love, and even God? So he chose to be as loyal as possible without compromising his ideals, his morals, or his heart. It was not a rash decision. Is was born of years of contemplation and reflection. And even though years later he would be depicted as a young man in his prime, in actuality, though soldier tough, he was an older, wiser man with a heavy white beard. And so he spent much time considering the consequences of this very day.
Finally came the noise for which he was waiting. The sound of men coming down the corridor attempting stealth. But he could hear them. He was a soldier after all. And he knew that someone had betrayed him and that it was only a matter of time. So he gets up and sits on the edge of his bed, already in full uniform save for his weapons to show that he was both ready and that he possed no threat. He was prepared for this night.
The door didn’t explode open as if they guards were coming to capture an enemy. He was, after all, the head of the Praetorian Guard, charged to protect the emperor, which he did to the best of his ability. He was their leader, their father figure, and friend. No, the door slowly opens, almost politely, and there were his men with conflicted looks on their faces. Only one word is spoken.
He stands and joins them and they walk down the corridor. It has begun.
There was no man handling. No binding. These strong, proud men shuffle their feet and avoid making eye contact. No words are spoken.
It is an ugly scene before Dioclesian the Emperor. Right now it doesn’t matter if he is right or wrong, moral or immoral, if he is good or if he is evil. What matters now is that he has the power to enforce his will and a soldier is condemned to death.
It is kind of a grotesquely gruesome death. Not the arrows that will come, but the friends, the comrades, the fellow men-at-arms who suddenly find themselves on the opposite side of the law. Friends must lead their friend, their authority and father figure, the person they respect to death.
Their own hands must strip the dignity of his uniform from his body, bind him to a stake and stand off at a distance and pull back arrows on the string in the direction of this great man. Everything is said with their eyes.
“Why did you make us do this Sebastian? We are soldiers. This is our duty. We follow the emperor even when we don’t like it.”
But Sebastian’s eyes convey their own message. “You have to understand. I am Christian. I have a duty to the One Who so loved me. This is what it is to love; to be able to sacrifice everything for the one that you love even when the consequences are not what you want them to be.”
Now, his friends are expert archers and the also know the human body well and they know where to pierce the body so as to not cause death. The first flurry of arrows whisper through the air and puncture Sebastian's body causing him to buckle in pain and fall to his knees. But he looks up and some mysterious glow shines on his face and he now knows how much he loves God and so fills with hope and begins to rise.
You can imagine the soldiers thinking “Just stay down Sebastian.” But he doesn’t and they are forced to let go another volley of arrows that devastate his body and Sebastian collapses to the ground and they leave him to his death.
They must go on. But someone else comes by; a woman by the name of Irene and her companions. She has come to take Sebastian’s body to prepare it for burial. But there is something odd here. As she moves the body the wounds well with blood and bleed. He is not dead! He is alive!
So she has him brought to her home where she cleans and tends to his wounds, bandages him, giving his nourishment, and when he is feeling a little better they begin to talk about his adventures in helping Christians.
But one day the conversation becomes a little more serious. Sebastian begins to speak about how important it is for all Christians to risk even their own lives for the faith. "If we do not this, thing swill ever get better."
“But seriously Sebastian, and don’t take this the wrong way, but how can we realistically accomplish by this? Even being identified as Christian can lead to our death. Look what happened to Marcillious, and Markus - look what happened to you Sebastian. We all risked everything just tending to you. A lot of good our mission will be if we are all dead, or jailed, or even just ridiculed.
“And of course it is easy for you to rest on your laurels and say, ‘all of you should go out and fight for the faith.’ The risk is over for you.”
That stung like another arrow.
Once again, on a night after his body sufficiently healed, the soldier lay awake again on his bed. And this time he was wrestling with his conscience. He thought to himself, “If you perform a great enough act to show the person you love that you indeed love him, are you then off the hook? When a mother goes through such great pain giving birth to her child, does that mean she doesn’t have to sacrifice anymore for her child to prove er love? If a man gives up everything to marry the woman he loves, does that mean he mean he never need sacrifice for her again? And if we love God and we perform one great act of love for Him, does that mean we need never risk again for the rest of our lives? Can we even call it love if that is our mentality?”
So once again, Sebastian sits up on his bed, stands, and sets out to go before Dioclesian. He comes across him on a set of stairs somewhere out on the Apian Way outside the walls of Rome and gives a prophet’s warning to the Emperor. “You are mistreating God’s people and breaking his holy law! Hear this from Sebastian who you tried to put to death! God spared me and sent me to you to give you fair warning. Repent of your ways and turn to the Lord and save you soul!”
Dioclesian is petrified. Is this a ghost come to haunt him? His bowels turn to jelly and his heart races. But soon he recovers when he realizes this is Sebastian in the flesh. Somehow he had survived his execution. Pulling his wits together he orders his guards to bludgeon Sebastian to death and this time in his presence so that he can be sure that he is finally dead. He orders the body to be thrown in the gutter and left like so much rubbish. Then the procession continues. The fury blows on like a storm passing through after it has done its damage.
The noble heart that loved so much, that was willing to risk everything for God and for his brothers and sisters to prove his love is thoughtlessly left by the side of the road. A gift rejected.
Or did he?
The rule of Dioclesian is long over.
Rarely is his name spoken other than in reference to St. Sebastian.
There are no buildings named after him.
His name is not on our lips in supplication.
He is not remembered fondly.
He is nor respected for his nobility, his leadership, his love.
And one wonders where he is spending all of eternity.
He is a shadow in the brilliance of our patron, St. Sebastian who has a privileged place in heaven and who like to interceded for us.
Lord, fill us with that spirit of courage
which gave your martyr Sebastian
strength to offer his life in faithful witness.
Help us to learn from him to cherish Your law
and to obey you rather than men.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.