Green beer, parades, corned beef and cabbage, wearing green. It appears everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Like many holidays, St. Patrick’s Day has become known more for its secular activities, while the reason the Christian church observes this day fades in memory. On March 17th, the Church remembers and thanks the blessed Trinity for St. Patrick, Missionary to Ireland.
As we consider Patrick’s life, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Historian Stephen Neill remarks: “Much in [Patrick’s] life history is obscure, and later legend has confused still more the scanty data which we have from Patrick’s own pen.” One of those legends would have it that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland into the sea. Another has him using a shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity, three persons in one God, to an unbeliever. There is also a legend that Patrick and his company were miraculously spared from death in ambush when those lying in wait for him saw them as eight deer and a fawn with a bundle on its shoulder. (Whitly Stokes, The Tripartite Life, p. 41-47). This legend is linked to a hymn attributed to Patrick known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”
Here’s what we do know historically. Patrick was born into a Christian family in Roman Britain about AD 389. Raiders from Ireland pillaged the coast and carried Patrick back with them as a slave. Sent to herd pigs, Patrick served six years and pondered his fate and his faith. Led by a dream, he escaped his captivity and headed toward the sea.
He finally made his way to France, where he became a monk and a priest. But he never forgot the land of his captivity, as he himself said: “I heard calling me the voices of those who dwelt beside the wood of Foclut which is nigh to the western sea, and thus they cried: ‘We beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk again amongst us as before.’”
Elevated to be bishop, Patrick returned to the land of his captivity about AD 433 to set his captors free from their slavery to idolatry. In this labor he spent the rest of his days. He preached throughout the land, founded communities, and imparted to the Irish church of his day a true zeal for missions. As he carried out his work, Patrick encountered much opposition—from the representatives of the old religion, from the kings whom he tried to convert, from British raiders who disrupted his work and massacred his converts. But he outlived his enemies and wore down the opposition and at the time of his death Ireland was largely a Christian country.
An ardent and orthodox confessor of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, Patrick brought the joy of confessing the “Three in One and One in Three” through the length and breadth of the Island during his life. March 17th is generally regarded as the day of His death. In his autobiography, Confession, Patrick wrote, “This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to His great wonders before every nation under heaven.”
And so, we thank God for this faithful missionary who served the church and his adopted people of Ireland by bringing them the Gospel of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. May we boldly share our faith wherever our Lord plants us.