Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Hebrews 11:32-40) tranports me to the venerated pages of the Golden Legend, that set of stories of Christian saints collected by Jacobus de Voragine in medieval Europe. Today I’m looking at the saint of the day, Sebastian, who lived and preached and engaged in what Rome considered seditious and subversive activity during the time of Emperor Diocletian in the early history of the church. It’s a fascinating story. Sebastian, living as he did in that early period when the church still took Jesus at his word and would not participate in killing, therefore would not allow members to join the military, did just that – he signed up for the Roman army. But he did so surreptitiously, in disguise, for the purpose of subverting the military’s reign of violence. He was appointed to the Praetorian Guard and began his covert operation of converting key people to the faith. He was particularly interested in the fate of believers who were on death row awaiting execution. Sebastian was able to win over the warden of the jail, and upon his conversion, this new believer also took Jesus at his word and set free all of the prisoners. It didn’t take Diocletian long to find out who was behind the plot, and he had Sebastian arrested, bound to a stake, and ordered his archers to shoot the saboteur till he was full of arrows as a hedgehog is full of quills. They did so, and left him there to rot. But another goodly saint, Irene, came the next day to bury him and was shocked to find him very much alive. Whether he had died and risen, or had actually survived the volley of arrows that pierced his body, the story doesn’t say. Either way, Irene removed all the arrows and nursed him back to health, upon which time he went out and immediately resumed his subversive activity, even denouncing the Emperor openly. He soon found himself arrested again, and was executed a second time, beaten to death with clubs and thrown down into a privy, becoming the only saint to be martyred twice. While he didn’t come back to life after this second execution, he did manage to get his body out of that resting place by appearing in a dream to an unnamed Christian widow, telling her where his body was, so that she could go and rescue him and give him proper burial at the catacombs of the apostles.
The writer of Hebrews is offering his own compendium of legendary saint stories, recounting the bravery and resilient faith of those who persevered through persecution. He doesn’t have time to do justice to all these saintly figures, so he starts summarizing their feats of sacred strength. He speaks of women, like our Saint Irene, who received some of the martyrs back to life through resurrection. And like our Sebastian, neither torture nor threat of death would silence their resurrected voices. They were raised from the dead not to enter heavenly bliss, but to re-enter the battle against injustice and violence. The dead saints rose, only to be imprisoned and tortured again, flogged and chained and sawn in two and tormented, and through it all they maintained their faith, because they were awaiting a second, even better resurrection.
It strikes me how radically far removed we are in our privileged culture from the kind of faith forged in these fires. Living as we do in an empire that claims Judeo-Christian founding principles, we have come to expect a privileged place in the public square. And we appropriate these stories of resilience under persecution in the most trivial of ways. Today, if we don’t get to use the bully pulpit to pray our prayers, if we don’t get access to the halls of power to enact our policies, the martyr complex arises and we scream bloody persecution. And within the faith community, the trivializing takes place. If a particular theological interpretation or ethical application is questioned or challenged, the response would lead you to believe Diocletian’s archers had just landed a quiver full of arrows and the offended saint had been tossed into a privy. It’s no coincidence that in a faith culture which trivializes persecution, God’s intervention in our world is also trivialized. God has traded in giving dead martyrs miraculous comebacks for giving football teams miraculous comebacks. Hail Mary. Maybe the NFL will give us another immaculate reception this playoff season.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.