From 1962 to 1967, a television series called “Combat!” ran on ABC. It was about a squad of American soldiers making their way through Europe during the Second World War. It was not a favorite of mine and I don’t know that I watched many episodes, but one episode has stayed with me. It featured a new guy (like Star Trek, it was never good to be the newbie) who was a deeply committed Christian.
This new man's faith had a marked impact upon his life. He wasn’t afraid of dying. He believed his days were in God’s hands, or, as the psalmist put it, “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me…” So he did his duty to the best of his ability, and was at peace with whatever might happen. When he died at the end of the episode, he did so without fear or regret.
It is this same sense that I get when I look at El Greco’s famous painting of Saint Sebastian (the one in the Prado Museum). Sebastian, who lived from 256 – 288 C.E., was an early Christian martyr and became a favorite subject of Renaissance artists. Tradition has it he joined the Roman army in order to assist martyrs without arousing suspicion. Because of his courage, he was promoted to a captain in the Praetorian Guards, but the day came when his faith was discovered. The Emperor Diocletian ordered his death, and turned him over to Mauritanian archers who tied him to a post and used him as a target. Pierced by numerous arrows Sebastian was left for dead, but a woman came to retrieve his body and bury him and found that he was still alive. She took him home and nursed him back to health.
Following his recovery, instead of leaving and preserving his life Sebastian chose to confront the Emperor. He stationed himself near a stairway that the emperor was going to be using, and then berated him for his persecution of Christians. This second time there was no mistake. On the emperor’s orders, he was clubbed to death. He was buried on the Appian Way, near the catacombs that bear his name.
El Greco’s rendering of Sebastian features his characteristic elongation of the body. While recognizable, the body is not realistic; certain elements are exaggerated to serve the artist’s purposes. The body itself twists, moving from left to right and back again in a sinuous form. The movement of light and dark across that form suggests flames surging upwards. Sebastian’s head is tilted up, as well, with a calm, peaceful gaze focused on heaven above. This is a man who accepts his fate, and whose soul longs for God.
That’s the connection with that episode from “Combat!” They each feature men of great faith, and what they got right is that faith does, indeed, impact the way we look at death. Does that mean that Christians shouldn’t be afraid of death? No, that’s where the two can mislead us. Jesus, after all, was filled with anguish as he contemplated his pending death in the Garden of Gethsemane. He even prayed to be delivered from it, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” The Apostle Paul describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed.”
Faith doesn’t mean the absence of fear. What it means, rather, is that we have a source of hope and comfort even in the midst of our fear. To put it differently, I like the idea of what El Greco was getting at in his rendering of Saint Sebastian – the idea that Sebastian found comfort in his faith even as he was being shot. But I suspect that much like Jesus upon the cross, the anguish of that moment was very real for Sebastian. Faith doesn’t take away our pain. What faith does, rather, is speak to us in our suffering; assuring us that we are not alone, and that our future rests in the hands of a loving God.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39)