On March 17th, people all over the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Adults celebrate this day with inebriation and turning the Chicago River green while kids search for 4-leaf clovers, leprechauns, and a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Many will wear green clothes and jewelry to prevent themselves from getting pinched and some might genuinely celebrate Irish culture and heritage.
Yet much like Easter and Christmas, the true meaning of St. Patrick’s Day has been lost due to modern commercialisation and the Church is struggling to recover it. Do you know what St. Patty’s Day is all about? Here’s a short history lesson:
St. Patrick was a real person! Born in Britain in AD 386, Irish pirates tore him from his home at the age of 16 where he was carried off into slavery in Ireland. During these times, paganism held control over the majority of Ireland. His slave master, Milchu, was a high priest of Druidism. Patrick viewed his captivity as a test of faith and he wrote of a vision he saw during his captivity where the pagans of Ireland were reaching their hands out to him. Because of this dream, Patrick became increasingly convinced he was being called to convert these Irish pagans to Christianity.
In another dream, he heard a voice promising he would find another way back home to Britain. Eager to see this dream come true, Patrick convinced some sailors to let him board their ship where, after three days of sailing, he and the rest of the crew abandoned ship in France where he wandered for 28 days. Eventually, he was reunited with his family in Britain and he soon went to Auxerre, France where he studied and entered the priesthood under the mentorship of St. Germain.
Patrick never forgot his vision. In AD 432, he was ordained as a bishop, and Pope Celestine I sent him to Ireland to spread the Gospel with the support of a small Christian community who were already living there. Throughout his missionary work in Ireland, Patrick welcomed the cultural customs of the Irish, essentially Christianising their pagan rituals in ways that would be biblical and acceptable to God. (Much like Christians today appropriately participate in Halloween.) He created councils, founded monasteries, organised dioceses, and baptised thousands of former Irish pagans.
St. Patrick’s Day is not only a feast day to honour the life, faith, and work of St. Patrick; his life and faith also stand as an example for Christians today. There may not be specific names to the paganism that surrounds us like “Druidism” (at least that I can think of), but we do live in a pagan nation. Anything that is not of God and of Christ is pagan with many of Druid pagan beliefs still prevalent today (e.g. reincarnation, divination, developing psychic abilities, etc.).
Some common paganism today is that the people in our culture speak of “the universe” giving them signs and opportunities, they believe in horoscopes and zodiac signs, they believe in the power of human emotions to materialise their dreams and goals (similar to pagan magic), and so on. This is all ancient paganism with different vocabulary.
Like St. Patrick once did, we live in a large mission field. This is why it is appropriate when churches (and my vicarage congregation is one of them) has a sign facing you as you exit the church parking lot that says, “You are now entering the mission field.” There is ample opportunity for us to share the Gospel with those around us. Many of the people we work with and go to school with are pagans; we just don’t know it and, of course, they won’t admit it (they probably don’t even know what a pagan is, which just means non-Christian). We learn how to bring the Gospel to these pagans at church every Sunday. Indeed, in every Bible study where we learn how to live as Christians in a world that is pagan and antithetical to Christ.
St. Patrick might seem like an extraordinary example, but each of us are called to the same mission he was passionate about. This is what we do in our daily vocations with the Gospel that guides and shapes how we live in a pagan world that wants nothing to do with Jesus—to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Just for Fun
One negative thing about St. Patrick to be aware of is his attempt to explain the Holy Trinity—how God is simultaneously one Being yet three distinct Persons. He did this by utilising the 3-leaf clover. All analogies are insufficient to explain and fathom the Holy Trinity and they all inevitably commit some kind of heresy. We simply must believe and confess it as the Scriptures do and, as theologians of the cross, leave it to the mystery of God. Here’s a funny and educational video from Lutheran Satire concerning this: