It is the 20th of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 288.
If we were in the 3rd century, we know that the "crisis of the 3rd century" in Rome will loom large. This was, in many ways, the beginning of the end of the Empire. An imperial assassination led to a series of civil wars exacerbated by geographical overreach and an economic crisis. Compounding all of this was the flood of barbarian invasions on the outskirts of the Empire.
And then, Diocletian. We've said his name plenty on this show. If you want to look for real live Christian persecution, here is your man. After all, to help right the ship, they needed someone with a heavy hand. And his hand was heavier than most.
Christians would tell each other stories about those who suffered, how they suffered, and what it meant. Just as in Jesus' life and death, they believed that the most heinous acts afflicting them could have redemptive power. And thus, the more suffering, the more stories of saints. And so, this century is chock full of stories and partial stories and "just-so" stories about these men and women. Some being more fantastical than others but in the context of trying to make sense of persecution and suffering as a Christian.
In 288, in the 4th year of the reign of Diocletian, it is said that St. Sebastian was martyred on this, the 20th of January. We could ask, which martyrdom? As Sebastian famously has two. But the story gets even stranger than that. Let's break it down.
The patron saint of athletes, soldiers, makers of pincushions, the plague, archers, and more, Sebastian was said to have been born in Gaul (modern France) and to have been a member of the Praetorian guard. A favorite of Diocletian, Sebastian kept his Christian faith a secret. Stories are recounted of him secretly going into prisons to bring food, heal the sick, and occasionally free the prisoners. Upon finding out that he had been double-crossed, Diocletian ordered Sebastian to be taken to a field, tied to a stake, and used as target practice for the Roman archers (which makes him being the patron saint of pin cushion makers and archers all the stranger.) When the archers believed him dead, they left his body only to be collected by a pious woman or group of women. Sebastian was revived and then met with a terrified Diocletian. Sebastian rebuked Diocletian, who nevertheless called in his guards to beat poor Sebastian to death for the second time. His body was thrown into a sewer, but according to legend, he appeared to one of the faithful, who then recovered his body and had it buried in the Roman Catacombs.
It's an interesting story with a lot of "Imitation of Christ" energy. And this seems to have been why he became such a popular and often painted saint for the next 1500 years. The iconography of Sebastian portrays the young soldier shirtless and bound to a large pole. His body is pierced with arrows, and the saint looks away with an expression of pain and rapture. During the actual Renaissance, there was a Sebastian renaissance, partly on account of his popularity surrounding the plague. Although there is no reference to an epidemic in his own life, arrows were closely associated with plague and catastrophe. And so, this young man, who survived his first attempted martyrdom, being pierced with these symbols of death and iniquity, make him an especially relevant Christ-figure during the Black Death.
St. Sebastian famously made a controversial cameo in the video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." Weird 90s moral outrage over music videos is usually pretty funny—fun fact: "Losing my Religion" is not about religion at all.
He was identified as one of the fourteen Holy Helpers in the Middle Ages because of his newly found anti-plague powers. In 2020 the Catholic News Service suggested Sebastian be called on as the Patron saint for COVID-19. I suppose that beats being the patron saint of pin cushion makers. The feast of St. Sebastian is celebrated today, the 20th of January.
The last word for today comes from Gerhard Forde and his "On Being a Theologian of the Cross."
"As sinners we are like addicts, addicted to ourselves and our own projects. The theology of glory simply seeks to give those projects eternal legitimacy. The remedy for the theology of glory, therefore, cannot be encouragement and positive thinking, but rather the end of the addictive desire. Luther says it directly: "The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it." So we are back to the cross, the radical intervention, end of the life of the old and the beginning of the new."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 20th of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a connoisseur of weird 90s moral outrage, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.