At the head of her list of heroes, after the two glorious Apostles Peter and Paul, who form her chief glory–Rome puts her two most valiant Martyrs, Laurence and Sebastian, and her two most illustrious Virgins, Cecily and Agnes. Of these four, two are given us by the Calendar of Christmastide as attendants in the court of the Infant Jesus at Bethlehem. Laurence and Cecily will come to us further on in our year, when other Mysteries will be filling our hearts and the Liturgy: but Christmas calls forth Sebastian and Agnes. Today, it is the brave soldier of the pretorian band, Sebastian, who stands by the Crib of our Emmanuel; tomorrow, we shall see Agnes, gentle as a lamb, yet fearless as a lion, inviting us to love the sweet Babe, whom she chose for her only one Spouse.
The chivalrous spirit of Sebastian reminds us of the great Archdeacon; both of them, one in the sanctuary, and the other in the world, defied the tortures of death. Burnt on one side, Laurence bids the tyrant roast the other; Sebastian, pierced with his arrows, waits till the gaping wounds are closed, and then runs to his persecutor Dioclesian, asking for a second martyrdom. But, we must forget Laurence today, to think of Sebastian.
We must picture to ourselves a young soldier, who tears himself away from all the ties of his home at Milan, because the persecution there was too tame, whereas, at Rome, it was raging in wildest fierceness. He trembles with anxiety at the thought, that, perhaps, some of the Christians, in the Capital, may be losing courage He has been told that, at times, some of the Emperor’s soldiers, who were soldiers also of Christ, have gained admission into the prisons, and have roused up the sinking courage of the confessors. He is resolved to go on the like mission, and, who knows? he may come within reach of a palm himself. He reaches Rome, he is admitted into the prisons, and encourages to martyrdom such as had been shaken by the tears of those who were dear to them. Some of the jailers, converted by witnessing his faith and his miracles, became Martyrs themselves; and one of the Roman Magistrates asks to be instructed in a religion which can produce such men as this Sebastian. He has won the esteem of the Emperors Dioclesian and Maximian-Hercules for his fidelity and courage as a soldier; they have loaded him with favours; and this gives him an influence in Rome, which he so zealously turns to the advantage of the Christian religion, that the holy Pope Caius calls him the Defender of the Church.
After sending innumerable martyrs to heaven, Sebastian, at length, wins the crown he had so ardently ambitioned. He incurs the displeasure of Dioclesian by confessing himself a Christian; the heavenly King, for whose sake alone he had put on the helmet and soldier’s cloak, was to him above all Emperors and Princes. He is handed over to the archers of Mauritania, who strip him, bind him, and wound him, from head to foot, with their arrows. They left him for dead, but a pious woman, named Irene, took care of him, and his wounds were healed. Sebastian again approaches the Emperor, who orders him to be beaten to death in the circus, near the Imperial Palace.
Such are the Soldiers of our new-born King! but, oh! how richly does He repay them for their service! Rome, the Capital of His Church, is founded on seven Basilicas, as the ancient City was on its seven hills; and the name and tomb of Sebastian grace one of these seven sanctuaries. The Basilica of Sebastian stands in a sort of solitude, on the Appian Way, outside the walls of the Eternal City; it is enriched with the relics of the holy Pope and Martyr Fabian; but Sebastian, the valiant leader of the pretorian guard, is the Patron, and, as it were, the Prince of the holy temple. It was here that he wished to be buried, as a faithful guardian, near the well wherein the bodies of the Holy Apostles had been concealed, lest they should be desecrated by the persecutors.
In return for the zeal of St. Sebastian for the souls of his christian brethren, whom he preserved from the contagion of paganism, God has made him the Protector of the Faithful against pestilence. A signal proof of this power granted to the holy Martyr, was given at Rome, in the year 680, under the Pontificate of St. Agatho.
Let us now listen to our holy Mother the Church, who thus speaks of her glorious Martyr, in the Office of his Feast.
Sebastian, whose Father was of Narbonne, and his Mother a lady of Milan, was beloved by Dioclesian on account of his noble birth and his virtues. Being a captain of the pretorian he was able to give assistance and alms to the christians, whose faith he himself followed, though privately. When he perceived any of them trembling at the great tortures of the persecutors, he made it his duty to encourage them; and so well did he do it, that many would go, and, for the sake of Jesus Christ, would freely offer themselves to the executioners. Of this number were the two brothers Mark and Marcellian, who were in custody under Nicostratus, whose wife, named Zoe, had recovered her speech by the prayer made for her by Sebastian. Dioclesian, being told of these things, summoned Sebastian before him; and after upbraiding him, in very strong words, tried every means to induce him to turn from the faith of Christ. But, finding that neither promises nor threats availed, he ordered him to be tied to a stake, and to be shot to death with arrows.
Every one thought he was dead; and a pious woman named Irene, gave orders that his body should be taken away, during the night, and buried; but she, finding him to be still alive, had him taken to her house, where she took care of him. Not long after, having quite recovered, he went before Dioclesian, and boldly chided him for his wickedness. At first, the Emperor was struck dumb with astonishment at the sight, for he had been told that Sebastian was dead; but, at length, the strange event and the Martyr’s sharp rebuke so inflamed him with rage, that he ordered him to be scourged to death with rods. His body was thrown into a sewer, but Lucina was instructed by Sebastian, in her sleep, both as to where his body was, and where he wished to be buried. Accordingly, she buried him at the Catacombs, where, afterwards, a celebrated Church was built, called Saint Sebastian’s.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.