Friday, March 20, 2015
St. Patrick's Day is almost upon us. Our nation celebrates St. Patrick's Day Tuesday, March 17. What comes to your mind when you think of this day? Parades, Leprechauns, the color green, green beer, corned beef cabbage, an Irish wake, Irish music like “When Irish eyes are Smiling,” Irish poetry, Irish humor, Irish dancing, Irish pride are some of the things.
All of these are valid, but there is one thing more. Christians, Protestants and Catholics, need to remember the giant Christian saint for whom this day is named. St. Patrick is known as the Apostle to
Ireland or the
Patron Saint of Ireland. The day
represents Patrick's religious feast day and the anniversary of his death. He died in the mid-fifth century in Ireland. The Irish have observed this day as a
religious holiday for over 1,000 years.
On St. Patrick's Day, Irish families traditionally attend church in the
morning and celebrate in the afternoon.
This day occurs during the season of Lent, but prohibitions against
eating meat are waived and people, dance, drink and feast.
Today we honor a humble, passionate, and gifted man, called by God to service in the name of Christ. What we know about Patrick comes principally from his own writings – The Confession, which chronicles events of his life and another document titled The Letter. He was raised in a Roman Christian home on the west coast of
Britain but Patrick was not
interested in Christianity. He writes
that as a young man he didn't believe in God and had no interest in the
At the age of 16, an incident occurred which changed the course of his life forever. He was kidnapped from the family villa in
and taken aboard ship to Ireland,
by Irish raiders. He was enslaved in Ireland and
forced to work as a shepherd for six years, and during that ordeal, filled with
hardships, loneliness, cold and hunger, he tells how he turned to God in prayer
and God turned toward Patrick. He sensed
God's personal presence, mercy and love and committed his life to Jesus Christ.
Yes, it was out of being kidnapped and enslaved, that Parick opened his heart
to God, and his life was turned around.
He writes: “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many. I was then about 16 years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland, with many thousands of people, and deservedly so, because we turned away from God and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger, and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers. And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief, that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me, before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.”
Patrick prayed for deliverance from slavery. And after six years, he heard the voice of God: “Your hungers are rewarded, you are going home, look, your ship is ready.” Patrick made good his escape and traveled by foot for over 200 miles. He writes: “I came in God's strength and had nothing to fear.” When he reached the south-east Irish coast, Patrick came upon a ship, which provided passage back to his home in
Patrick knew in his heart of hearts that God had placed a call upon his life. But he also felt completely unprepared, inadequate and uneducated for the task. So after being home for period of time, Patrick left
Britain and made his
way to Gaul or modern day France,
where he enrolled in a Roman Catholic seminary.
He was eventually ordained a priest and later a bishop. He thought that now, at last, he was
fulfilling God's call in his life. Ah,
but Patrick had only begun to grasp what God had in store for him.
Patrick writes: “One night I had a dream, in which someone named Victoricus handed me a stack of letters. I took one and at the top read the words: ‘The voice of the Irish.’ Then I heard many Irish voices crying out, we beg you to come and walk among us once more.” Patrick says he felt like he was stabbed in the heart. He woke from the dream, knowing in his heart, that God was calling him to return to
Ireland, to the
emerald Isle, this time not as a slave, but as a Catholic missionary to walk
among the Celts.
In 432, Patrick, now a trained priest, once again entered the world of the Celts, a world of tribes or clans, a world of a primative war-like people, a superstitious and pagan world and yet a deeply spiritual world. Julius Caesar had driven the celts out of Europe into the
British Isles centuries
before. Celt is a Greek word which means
“the stranger or the other.” Their
language was Gaelic. The Celts saw the
supernatural everywhere, in dark caves and on the tops of mountains, in people
and events. Their lives were filled with
signs and symbols. Gods and goddesses
roamed the land, the realm of magic was embraced, but there was no knowledge of
one true God, the creator, nor of Christ, the redeemer.
This was the world God called Patrick to bring the message of the gospel to. He of course knew the Celtic culture well. Obviously, this was an important qualification which God had in mind, when God chose Patrick. Patrick wrestled with the question - How would he fulfill his calling to the Celtic people? How would he introduce the Christian gospel to these people?
God gave him his answer. He decided to look for ways to connect the message of Christ to the Celtic culture, to establish a synthesis between Christian traditions and Celtic traditions – and in doing so, Celtic Christianity was born.
For example, tradition says Patrick used the shamrock, a three-leafed plant, to illustrate the Christian teaching about the Trinity, that God's nature is Triune, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Druid priests were still practicing human sacrifice, and Patrick convinced them that through Christ's supreme sacrifice on the cross, once and for all, human offerings to God were no longer required or needed. These very Druid priests became priests in the monasteries. Patrick incorporated the Celts worship, love and appreciation for nature, for the environment and transformed that passion into their roles as stewards/caretakers of the gift of creation God had given them. Patrick reaffirmed the Celtic value of the equality of men and women in their culture, and taught that God had created men and women in His image. Patrick re-affirmed the Celts natural love for wandering and translated that passion into the practice of making spiritual pilgrimages to draw one nearer to God.
Patrick organized the clans or tribes into monastic or religious communities, where they worshipped, worked and prayed together among carrying out other traditions. Patrick re-affirmed the Celts sense of the mystery of God, of the mystical and sacredness of life, into their understanding of God and God's gift of life as a sacred trust. Patrick incorporated the Celts love of the arts and story-telling, poetry and music into their worship experiences bringing in Christian ideas and symbols into the Gaelic language. Patrick directed the Celts passion for the ascetic life-style into the Christian spiritual disciplines of fasting after Jesus' fasting in the wilderness.
One day, Patrick was sharing the gospel with a pagan tribal leader and was attempting to teach him the doctrine of the trinity. Patrick bent down and plucked a single clover from the grass, the shamrock, holding it up showing three leaves, yet only one clover.
On another day, Patrick was shown a stone, marked with a circle, that was symbolic of the moon goddess. Patrick made the mark of a Latin cross through the circle and blessed the stone and made the first Celtic Cross.
Patrick remained in
Ireland for 30 years, crisscrossing
the island, preaching the gospel, converting the people to Christ, baptizing,
and organizing monastic communities composed of both men and women. He was a man of vision, of tireless energy
and completely dedicated to Christ.
The language of our two scriptures capture the essence of Celtic Christian spirituality. The mystical, mystery, the sacred union, the sacramental, the personal, is at the heart of Celtic Christian faith.
I can imagine Patrick teaching his followers - “Continue to live your lives in Christ, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith.” And in Ephesians: “I pray that according to the riches of his glory God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breath and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
There are many lessons that we as Christians can take from Patrick's life. I think of two. First, God took a terrible ordeal in Patrick's life, being kidnapped and sold into slavery, and brought something good out of it. Patrick saw God's hand and purpose at work in the circumstances of that trial in his young life. Romans 8:28 says, “In all things God works together for good for those who love him and are called to his purpose.” This is how God works in our lives. Patrick eventually forgave the Irish people and grew to love them in his zeal for the Celts to come to know Christ. Second, Patrick used his God given talents, creativity, calling and devotion to prayer to develop an approach to bring the gospel to the Celts which connected to their culture rather than alienating them or condemning them. He respected their culture, and found common ground to bring the gospel. I hope Patrick's perceptive and forgiving faith and sensitive evangelistic style inspires you as a follower of Christ.
I close with this familiar Irish blessing. “May the Irish hills caress you, may her lakes and rivers bless you, may the luck of the Irish enfold you, and may the blessings of St. Patrick behold you.” Amen!