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It always amazed me when we lived in Basqueland: the days, weekends, and entire weeks of “fiestas”. Every town, city, province, even neighborhoods have their special ‘fiesta` as well as the national holidays. Almost all these festivities are named for oneSt of the Saints or ‘Marys’ of the Roman Catholic church. There is always a Mass on the holiday to honor the saint or virgin, and there are many interesting cultural and historical events during this time too - neighborhood bbqs along the streets, on almost every corner, a bicycle marathon through the city and out to a large sports complex. Then there is the ‘pagan’ influence’ =masks, fires, costumes, horns, pitchforks – mixed in with rock concerts and mega drinking = drunkenness.
Now we are in Majorca and one of the first holidays we encountered was San Sebastian – January 20. The patron saint of the city of Palma. So I looked online and in the newspaper to find out what the commemoration was all about.
“Sebastian was born into a Christian home in France, 256, educated in Milan and became a soldier for the Roman Emperor. As a Christian he didn’t participate in the pagan sacrifices. He would visit and encourage companions imprisoned for their faith. When emperor Maximiano found out about his faith, he was offered a choice: be a soldier or follow Jesus Christ.
Sebastian chose to follow Christ. He was threatened with death, but held firm to his faith. Furious, the emperor condemned him to die shot by arrows. The soldiers took him to the stadium, took off his clothing, tied him to a post and rained down arrows, leaving him for dead. His friends came, saw he was still alive and took him to a safe place where he could recover. He later appeared before the emperor confronting him with his persecution of Christians. The order was given to scourge him til he died. The Christians took his body and buried it in a catacomb which has the name San Sebastián. This was 288.”
The RC church has made him a saint which means not only is he venerated, but is considered a mediator to whom people can go to pray – especially for protection against poison arrows, plagues and illnesses.
I think if Sebastian could come again and walk the streets of Palma, he would be dismayed. There is no mention of Christ, no exalting of His name, no preaching of the gospel for which Sebastian stood and gave his life. We can follow his example, as that of the apostles in Acts when faced with a similar decision: Acts 5:27 - 29 – “the high priest confronted them, ‘We gave you strict orders never again to teach in this man’s name! Instead, you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about him, and you want to make us responsible for his death! But Peter and the apostles replied, 'We must obey God rather than any human authority."(NLT)
Just before this special holiday the is the ‘Feste de Sant Antoni - January 16, another day of a saint plus pagan ceremonies having to do with agriculture.
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Sant Antoni – or Saint Antonio Abad was born in Egypt, 251 into a well-to-do family. In a sermon he heard, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor.” When his parents died he distributed his inheritance among the poor of his village and went to live in the desert. They tell he resisted many temptations through prayer and fasting. He encouraged fellow believers during the severe persecution of Emperor Diocletian and took a firm stand against the doctrine of Ariansim. They say he loved animals and would protect them wherever he was. So he is considered the patron saint of animals- This day is a local holiday in many towns of Majorca. Farmers ask Sant Antoni to protect their animals. Hundreds line up at the local parish with their farm animals as well as house pets to receive the ‘blessed water’ from San Antoni.
This celebration is tied to figures of demons and devils. The night before, huge bonfires are lit. Men dressed as demons dance around the fire, showing that they are victorious over evil, representing the temptations of Sant Antoni. This dancing continues through the night. The festival includes a parade where there will be dragons and demons with fire. “Everything is licit in this night of fire and devils!" School children are encouraged to attend class dress as demons. It is a challenge for Christians parents and school teachers.
I always wonder WHY, down through the centuries, people weren’t taught to follow the examples of both Sant Antoni and San Sebastian. Children and youth could have been brought up to take a stand for Jesus Christ as Sebastian did, share what they have to the needy around them. That would be a way to remember these two early Christians.