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Sebastian: A Patron Saint for Athletes
St. Sebastian (died c.300)
Feast day: January 20
It was St. Paul, in his second letter to St. Timothy, who first likened faithful Christians, particularly martyrs, to athletes. As his life was drawing to an end the great apostle compared himself to a boxer and a runner: "I have fought a good fight," he said. "I have finished my course." A few decades later, about the year 110, the martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to his fellow bishop St. Polycarp urging him to act like "an athlete of God [for whom] the prize is immortality and eternal life."
Of all God?s athletes, St. Sebastian ranks among the most easily recognized: who hasn?t seen a picture of him, tired to a tree and riddled with arrows? Invariably artists depict the saint as young, handsome and in fantastic physical condition ? in other words, an all ?round natural choice as patron of athletes.
The earliest surviving account of Sebastian?s life dates from 100 years after his death. According to the story Sebastian was a Praetorian, one of an elite band of soldiers who served as the emperor?s bodyguard. Sebastian used his rank to visit Christians in prison, particularly twin brothers, Marcellian and Marcus, whose resolve was being shaken by their own families. As the young men stood surrounded by their weeping parents, wives, and children, Sebastian addressed Marcellian and Marcus as "soldiers of Christ," reminding them that the happiness of this world was nothing compared to the joys of eternal life in heaven. Their courage restored, the brothers declared their faith and went joyfully to their martyrdom.
By encouraging Marcellian and Marcus, Sebastian had given himself away. At Sebastian?s trial the Emperor Diocletian reproached him as an ingrate and a traitor who accepted honors from the emperor but secretly desired the destruction of the Roman Empire. Sebastian denied the accusation. "I have always prayed to Christ to save your soul," he told Diocletian, "and to uphold the empire."
The emperor was not convinced. He ordered Sebastian?s fellow Pretorians to take the prisoner to their camp outside the city walls and execute him. There the Praetorians bound the martyr to a stake, shot him full of arrows and left him for dead.
After dark a Christian woman named Irene came to the camp to collect Sebastian?s body for burial, but as she cut him down from the stake she found he was still alive. Irene took Sebastian to her house where she nursed him back to health.
Once his strength returned Sebastian went straight to the imperial palace where he confronted Diocletian on the steps. At first the emperor was unnerved at the sight of the "dead man." But when Sebastian began to rebuke the emperor for his cruelty to his Christian subjects, Diocletian?s fear turned to rage. He ordered his guard to beat Sebastian to death where he stood. Once they were certain that this time Sebastian truly was dead, the soldiers dumped his body in a sewer.
That night a few Christians recovered Sebastian?s body, wrapped it in a shroud, then bore it outside the walls of Rome and down the Appian Way. They laid God?s athlete in a vault in a catacomb that has been known ever since as San Sebastiano.
Craughwell is the author of Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises, 2001) and Patron Saint Cardlinks (Our Sunday Visitor, 2004).
Copyright ?2005 Arlington Catholic Herald. All rights reserved.