Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

‘Beati eritis’: a Homily for Saint Sebastian

Blessed shall you be when men hate you (Luke 6).

Also 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 Christian over his head, and shot with arrows by the soldiers, and lastly to be scourged with rods till he died. 

So reads the entry in the Roman Martyrology of one of today’s saints. Though we are all cowards, what an honor it would be to go to our own deaths with a little plaque that read Christianus or Christiana above our heads. 

Of course we are reminded of the titulus that was placed on the wood of the Holy Cross. 

But it was not St Sebastian’s cohort that placed that sign of condemnation above his head—it was the Beatitudes. For the Beatitudes are the beginning of Christian martyrdom. 

That will come as a shock, perhaps, to Catholic social justice warriors. For them, the Beatitudes are something else. But there is another kind of warrior in St Sebatian, one far more true. And we ought to notice that Christ gave the Beatitudes sitting on a plain, the very surroundings in which St Sebastian went to his death. Here, in the sixth chapter of St Luke, Christ sits like a commanding general, preparing his troops for their immanent engagement. 

Now St Luke’s version of the Beatitudes and St Matthew’s differ; St Matthew’s are longer. But in whichever version, the Beatitudes begin palatably enough. Indeed, the world understands poverty, hunger, and sorrow; and perhaps even for the worldly minded there can be a sentimental comfort in knowing there is a certain blessedness attached to this kind of suffering. But at the end of the list, the whole thing changes: Beati eritis cum vos oderint homines. Now that sort of blessedness is difficult for human nature to take; and more often than not, we would rather go without it. There is nothing tame about the Beatitudes—for blood runs through them.    

But this is precisely why the passion of every Christian martyr is contained, in potentia, within Beatitudes. It is a fact repeated and proven time and again, in every century: to follow the logic of Jesus Christ, the world’s hatred is at the end of every syllogism. Thus, all christiani are confronted with a kind of absurdity. After all, the Gospel represents everything that is most perfect and life-giving; why should anyone refuse to receive it or seek to destroy those who obey it? Christ proposes himself as the way, the truth, and the life; it makes no sense not to assent and follow. And yet, the blessedness pointed out by the Beatitudes will not go unassaulted by those who have no love of God.

Thus we needed Christ to sit down upon the plain to teach us—because, when confronted with the world’s destructive intolerance, we might not have otherwise believed that the Beatitudes were the way to life. Our Blessed Lord shows the nobility and wisdom of his Heart by concluding the beatitudes as he does: ‘Blessed shall you be when men hate you.’ He shows his love by warning about the world’s hatred. In so doing, he assures the persecuted that they are making no mistake; that they are indeed on the way to beatitude.

Only the strongest supernatural faith will be able to sustain the Beatitudes. Yet it is why the most ancient feasts of the saints were those of the martyrs; it is why we celebrate them today. (Tomorrow we will celebrate the young Roman virgin-martyr, Agnes.) 

However, there is hope for us; it springs out of our altars.—By frequently and reverently celebrating the passions of the martyrs, our faith and courage will be trained under the influence of grace. It is just as the collect said: we are here for God to regard our infirmity. That is enough for us now, this offering of our weakness. Without our noticing, the grace of the Beatitudes will have reached us, and that will make us ready to bear our own arrows and rods; and then we will rejoice as we never have before in the title Christian.    


{Art Credit: Gerrit van Honthorst, Saint Sebastian, ca. 1623; London, National Gallery} 

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