Saint Sebastian is known as the patron saint of athletes, but do you know his story? An early martyr, he was unique in that he was martyred twice. A covert Christian he joined the Roman Army in 283, living in a time of intense Christian persecution in Rome. He rose in the ranks of the Emperor Diocletian’s Praetorian guards (elite body guards with special intelligence responsibilities) to have access to the imprisoned Christians so he could encourage them. Though hard to verify the details of his life, the stories handed down contain him converting many to the faith including those in prison, the prison guards, officials, including the local prefect, and their families. One preserved story tells of the official named Nicostratus and his wife Zoe. Zoe was mute for six years and upon her conversion was cured.
Sadly, Sebastian was discovered in 286. He was sentenced to death by a firing squad of archers. St. Ambrose in his 4th century history described him as being shot full of arrows like an urchin. Left for dead, he was later found to be alive and nursed back to health by Saint Irene of Rome.
Now, I think most of us in this situation would cut our losses and get the heck out of Dodge. Not Sebastian, he was cut from a rare cloth. He confronted a stunned Emperor Diocletion in public renouncing his inhumane treatment of the Christians! He courageously stood up against injustice and it cost him his life. He was then sentenced to death again by clubbing.
January 20th is the feast day of St. Sebastian, this year it happens to coincide with another great man who courageously stood up against injustice- Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK, Jr also died for his cause. Today there is still injustice, injustice against the unborn comes to my mind. We need brave men and women to stand up and endure the “polite persecution” as Pope Francis puts it. This means your life is not at stake, but you may be judged, laughed at, or worse for being Christian. But just as St. Sebastian was shot full of arrows, but persevered, so we must be able to take the blows of life and continue to fight the good fight.
The qualities St. Sebastian exemplified in his life inspired us to name our son Sebastian. We were devastated to discover while our son was in the womb that he had HLHS (Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome) or half a heart. We knew he would need the strength, courage, and endurance of St. Sebastian to survive the series of open-heart surgeries necessary to save his life. And we figured if we got the miraculous healing we were praying for he’d probably be a great athlete : ) Coincidently, it seems that both arrows and the name Sebastian have been trending over the past few years.
An arrow can symbolize different things to different people. From tattoos to home décor they are everywhere it seems. They can signal journey, direction, protection, friendship, evil or something that pierces your heart. When I see an arrow, I think of St. Sebastian, and I think of our own journey. When we received our son’s diagnosis, I felt like I was shot through the heart. I have a decorative plaque with an arrow that says “You are my greatest adventure” and that reminds me of our Sebastian and his heart journey. I also had a heart mom friend, not knowing anything about Sebastian and the arrow, give me a necklace while in the hospital, that had an arrow charm and a dogtag engraved with “be brave and keep going.”
Do any of my Catholic friends remember the hymn, “Blest be the Lord?” I never hear it anymore, but it is a classic from my childhood. The lyrics go like this, “Blest be the Lord, blest be the Lord, the God of Mercy, the God who Saves, I shall not fear the dark of night, nor the arrow that flies by day.” (Psalm 91:5), I haven’t heard it in years maybe decades, but the words are so familiar to me. The song goes on, “I need not shrink before the terrors of the night, nor stand alone before the light of day. No harm shall come to me, no arrow strike me down, no evil settle in my soul.” I have to wonder if Saint Sebastian was familiar with Psalm 91. It is such an encouragement in trying times!
Since the year 2000 when the name Sebastian cracked the top 100 it has rapidly climbed up the charts. According to the Social Security baby naming data it was ranked #18 in popularity in 2018. I don’t know what accounts for this increase in popularity. Maybe people like that unlike other traditional boy names, it has stayed only a boy name. (I’m not judging here, our daughter Charlotte we call Charlie). While a lot of people probably still think of Sebastian as the crab from Disney’s The Little Mermaid; I hope now maybe you will also think of a heroic saint worthy to be a namesake. Trend on, Sebastian! St. Sebastian, pray for us!