January 20th, Feast of St. Sebastian
Many of the early Christian martyrs were not killed straight away by the torments of their persecutors. Probably the two most well-known cases of surviving martyrdom are St. John the Evangelist and St. Philomena. While the Beloved was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil, he came forth healthier than he went in – and so lived out his days as an exile on the isle of Patmos, where he received the vision recorded in the book of the Apocalypse. St. Philomena, the special patroness of the Curé of Ars, was tortured horribly by Diocletian and suffered several martyrdoms (including both being thrown into the Tiber river with an anchor bound to her neck so as to drown her, and having arrows fired upon her) before finally giving up her spirit at her beheading.
St. Sebastian, likewise, did not die immediately upon being shot with many arrows, but recovered and suffered a second martyrdom – hence, he is sometimes called the saint who was martyred twice (a reference which is shared by St. Isaac Jogues, closer to our own day).
St. Sebastian was martyred by beatings with rods
From the Roman Martyrology:
“At Rome, ad Catacumbas, St. Sebastian, martyr, who was in command of the first cohort under the Emperor Diocletian, was ordered to be bound in the middle of a plain, with the title of Christian over his head, and shot with arrows by the soldiers, and lastly to be scourged with rods till he died.”
St. Irene of Rome, widow of St. Castulus
The images of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom show him tied to a tree and pierced through with many arrows – and this is accurate enough, as far as it goes. However, the popular image leaves out what happened next: For, the soldiers presuming the saint to be dead, left his body hanging upon the tree. However, St. Irene of Rome came to bury the relics of St. Sebastian and found that was not quite dead. Owing partly to her care and partly to the divine assistance, St. Sebastian was restored to health.
From the Golden Legend
The “Golden Legend” was the most important and popular book of the Medieval Period on the lives of the early saints. It is called the “Golden Legend” or Legenda Aurea, not so much because the stories are mere “legends” in the modern sense of the term, but according the ancient meaning of the word which means the relating of a story or event (from the Latin legere, legenda meaning “things to be read”).
“Diocletian was much angry and wroth, and commanded [Sebastian] to be led to the field and there to be bounden to a stake for to be shot at. And the archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin is full of pricks, and thus left him there for dead.
The night after came a christian woman for to take his body and to bury it, but she found him alive and brought him to her house, and took charge of him till he was all whole. Many christian men came to him which counselled him to void the place, but he was comforted and stood upon a step where the emperor should pass by, and said to him: ‘The bishops of the idols deceive you evilly which accuse the christian men to be contrary to the common profit of the city, that pray for your estate and for the health of Rome.’ Diocletian said: ‘Art thou not Sebastian whom we commanded to be shot to death.’ And Saint Sebastian said: ‘Therefore our Lord hath rendered to me life to the end that I should tell you that evilly and cruelly ye do persecutions unto christian men.’
Then Diocletian made him to be brought into prison into his palace, and to beat him so sore with stones till he died. And the tyrants threw his body into a great privy, because the christian men should make no feast to bury his body, ne of his martyrdom. But Saint Sebastian appeared after to Saint Lucy, a glorious widow, and said to her: ‘In such a privy shalt thou find my body hanging at an hook, which is not defouled with none ordure, when thou hast washed it thou shalt bury it at the catacombs by the apostles.’ And the same night she and her servants accomplished all that Sebastian had commanded her. He was martyred the year of our Lord two hundred and eighty seven.”
A prayer to St. Sebastian, patron saint of athletes
“Dear Commander at the Roman Emperor's court, you chose to be a soldier of Christ and dared to spread faith in the King of Kings – for which you were condemned to die. Your body, however, proved athletically strong and the executing arrows extremely weak. So another means to kill you was chosen and you gave your life to the Lord. May athletes be always as strong in their faith as their Patron Saint so clearly has been. Amen.”