Today is the Feast Day of Saint Patrick, commemorating the day of his death in AD 461.
I’ll admit, when I was growing up, the only thing I knew about St. Patrick’s Day was that we were supposed to wear green. And even that was challenged. Some Protestants started a contrarian movement to wear orange instead. Because, St. Patrick was, ya know, Catholic.
Well, Saint Patrick died more than a thousand years before the Reformation, so he was as Christian as any other Christian of that day—not Catholic and not Protestant.
According to his own writings, he was born into a wealthy Romano-British home. Both his father and grandfather were active in the Church. At sixteen Patrick was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. During the six years he served in that pagan land, he became a Christian, eventually escaped, and returned home.
Patrick then became a priest and some years later decided to return to Ireland as a missionary. He spent a number of years in northern Ireland, confronting druids and leading thousands to Christ.
Green became associated with Patrick because of his connection with Ireland, known for its lush, green landscape. In addition, in the 1640s the Irish Catholic Confederation adopted a flag with a field of green.
The shamrock, also green and also a symbol associated with St. Patrick’s Day, according to legend was an object the missionary used to teach the pagans about the trinity.
Some places still hold St. Patrick Day parades today, and other such festivities, but perhaps the other thing most associated with the day is drinking. There’s a reasonable explanation behind that, too. Patrick was celebrated internationally as early as the tenth century. By the 1600s the Catholic church included his day on the liturgical calendar.
However Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol conflicted with a feast, so they were lifted for the day. Hence, eating and drinking on St. Patrick’s Day, particularly in excess, became something similar to Mardi Gras.
To be honest, I’m a little sad that so much has been lost about St. Patrick. The celebrations and the day itself have so little to do with a young, twenty-something slave coming to grips with his need for Christ, and eventually returning to the land of his captivity to share the gospel with the very people who had caused his suffering.
It’s a true story of redemption and forgiveness, much more powerful than wearing green and drinking oneself into a stupor.
I have to wonder how a person becomes so well-known that strangers down through the centuries want to celebrate his life. St. Patrick must have endeared himself to the Irish people. And the Irish had occasion to spread throughout Europe and beyond. Like so many immigrants, they took their culture with them. At least that’s what occurred in America when the Irish immigrants increased dramatically in the 1800s.
All that aside, why don’t we have an Apostle Paul Day? Or more recently a Corrie ten Boom Day or a Jim Eliot Day? These people suffered for their faith, made an impact for Christ beyond their small world, influenced people far and near.
So why Patrick?
Only God knows. My hope is that St. Patrick’s Day will be a reminder, to me at least, of the power of the gospel, of the value of unselfish and sacrificial service. May his day become a beacon of light today into the pagan world, even as his missionary endeavors were when he first shared Christ with a land under druid influence.