Wednesday, January 20, 2010

St. Sebastian (257?-288?)

Nothing is historically certain about St. Sebastian except that he was a Roman martyr, was venerated in Milan even in the time of St. Ambrose and was buried on the Appian Way, probably near the present Basilica of St. Sebastian. Devotion to him spread rapidly, and he is mentioned in several martyrologies as early as a.d. 350. The legend of St. Sebastian is important in art, and there is a vast iconography. Scholars now agree that a pious fable has Sebastian entering the Roman army because only there could he assist the martyrs without arousing suspicion. Finally he was found out, brought before Emperor Diocletian and delivered to Mauritanian archers to be shot to death. His body was pierced with arrows, and he was left for dead. But he was found still alive by those who came to bury him. He recovered, but refused to flee. One day he took up a position near where the emperor was to pass. He accosted the emperor, denouncing him for his cruelty to Christians. This time the sentence of death was carried out. Sebastian was beaten to death with clubs. He was buried on the Appian Way, close to the catacombs that bear his name.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark (3:1-6)

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, Stand up in front of everyone. Then Jesus asked them, Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill? But they remained silent. He looked round at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

Anger and Love
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

I remember years ago I was beginning some research on the character of God as it is shown in certain religious traditions. In one of the first of my meetings with the moderator of my work, he referred to the Old and New Testaments. He said that the God of the Old Testament was a God of anger while the God of the New was a God of love. I immediately disputed his simplification - and indeed it was a very superficial categorization of the God of the Scriptures. But it is commonly held, and the anger of God in the Old Testament is regarded by some people as something of an embarrassment to revealed religion. God should not be portrayed as being angry and wrathful. There are anthropologists and theorists of religion who set the wrathful Yahweh in the company of the other irascible deities of many pagan peoples, implying that he differs little from them. But Yahweh’s wrath is not just a personal irascibility - it is a horror of sin. This is not the moment to compare the character of Yahweh God with that of other gods, but it is important to consider this insistence that God can only be, we might say, “benevolent” - even with sin. This is relevant because, characteristically, a thoroughly secular outlook strives to be “benevolent” towards personal sin. That is to say, it looks kindly on it, and this is basically because it does not think that there is sin. What matters is that a person be sincere, and if you do what you do out of genuine conviction, then all is well. Thus there is nothing objectively “sinful” with homosexual practice in itself - provided you are sincere. So we ought be “benevolent” towards those who “sin,” with sincerity. We ought be even-handed, and if anything, it is sinful to be “wrathful” towards sin and the sinner. These secular assumptions are accepted as self-evident, and can set up in our minds severe expectations about the character and actions of God himself. It can confirm the rejection of certain revealed doctrines, such as that of God’s definitive judgment on each person, and of the doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell.

Now, God is indeed portrayed as being angry in the Old Testament. He punishes man for his sin. Adam and Eve disobeyed him and knowingly accepted the word of the Serpent. God cast them out of the Garden and imposed hard labour on the man and suffering on the woman. He punished Cain for his murder of Abel. Having ordered Noah into the Ark, he destroyed the peoples for their sins. He rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah. He punished Moses for his lack of faith by refusing him entry into the Promised Land. He took away the crown from Saul for his disobedience, and he punished David more than once for his sins. Because of their sins he allowed the city of Jerusalem to be destroyed by the Babylonians and the chosen people to be deported to Babylon. In all of this Yahweh God is portrayed as being angry - not just piqued and irritated like many of the gods of the peoples, - and his anger is horror at sin. Yahweh God required holiness: be holy, he ordered, for I the Lord am holy. In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a God of compassion and love - he felt compassion for his people, and for this reason he sent Moses to deliver his people from their slavery. But sin provoked his wrath. So man has every reason to fear God if he sins. If he wishes to please God and obtain his favour, he must turn away from his sins. Thus our Lord began his public ministry calling on all to repent, for the kingdom of God was near at hand. Of course, we may philosophize on how the anger of God is best understood in view of the infinity of his love, but that God presents himself to us as angry if we persist in our sins and refuse to repent, is clear from his revelation. This brings us to our Gospel today, a passage in which our Lord is angry. He is the image of the unseen God, and we read that in the face of the sinful stubbornness of the leaders, “He looked round at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, Stretch out your hand” (Mark 3: 1-6). He looked on them “in anger.” Let us make sure he does not look on us “in anger.”

Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, has come to offer us his personal friendship. Salvation consists in faithful friendship with Jesus. We have a choice. Do we wish to live in his friendship, or do we wish to live without it? Sin is the one thing that destroys friendship with God and Christ - and unrepented sin confirms this loss. If we sin, we must repent so as to be received back into the friendship of God. Ultimately and eternally, we shall find ourselves in God’s friendship or subject to his anger. What shall it be? His friendship? Well then, now I begin!

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