As an Irish-American, St. Patrick’s Day has always held a special place in my heart. But just why do we celebrate? Who was St. Patrick and why was he so important? Patrick was a sheep herder who became a Christian missionary and bishop in Ireland. The exact dates of his life are not precisely known, but in general it is believed that his ministry was primarily during the second half of the 5th century and that the day we celebrate, March 17th, is believed to be the day of his death and subsequent entrance into heaven.
Surprising to many is the fact that St. Patrick was not Irish. He was British; Patrick’s parents were Roman citizens living in England. By the time of Patrick’s birth, most Romans were Christians and Christianity was spreading rapidly across Europe. At age 16, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and taken back to Ireland as a slave where he spent several years herding sheep and learning about the Irish people. Around age 22 he managed to escape and fled back to England.
Patrick wrote in “The Confession of Patrick” that the time he spent as a slave was crucial to his spiritual development and that The Lord had “mercy on his youth and ignorance”. As he spent his days herding sheep he spent much time in prayer leading to his eventual personal repentance and faith in Jesus. Once back in England, Patrick joined a monastery and spent about 12 years learning more about God and, thus, grew closer to his Creator.
Patrick recounted in “Confession” that he later had a vision of a man named Victoricus that came from Ireland carrying “many letters”. To Patrick he gave one with the heading “The Voice of the Irish” and from this vision Patrick was inspired to return to Ireland as a missionary. Patrick’s position as a foreigner in Ireland was not always an easy one; his refusal to accept gifts from kings placed him outside the normal ties of kinship and affinity. Legally he was without protection, and he claimed that he was once beaten, robbed of all he had, and put in chains. As with many missionaries, the Gospel message is not always warmly received.
Several legends have become common to St. Patrick including the legend that Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland. There is, of course, no real evidence to support this, and it is more probable that it is allegorical for driving out the pagan beliefs. Of course, especially here in America, the color associated with Ireland and St. Patrick is green, but Patrick’s color was originally blue. In several ancient artworks depicting the saint, he is shown wearing blue vestments and King Henry VIII used the Irish harp in gold on a blue flag to represent the country. Green was associated with the country at a later time, possibly because of the greenness of the countryside, made so by the plentiful rainfall. Today, Ireland is often referred to as the “Emerald Isle”.
And then there is the prototypical symbol of St. Patrick’s Day, the shamrock. While many would claim the shamrock stands for faith, hope, and love; legend has it that Patrick used the shamrock to help people understand the triune nature of God. This makes sense as the leaf’s typical three lobes can easily demonstrate how three things, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be separate entities yet be one and the same. It does seem quite apparent that however Patrick shared the Gospel message, he met opposition and he faced plenty of challenges. That he overcame the trials and difficulties to convert the Irish people is a testament to his conviction that the Gospel was worth any price he might have paid.
The Gospel message has driven many a person to endure whatever hardships, trials, and persecution came along. Compelled by the certainty that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is absolutely true and, therefore, the single most important fact of all humanity, Christians throughout history have endured all things to advance the salvation message. Saint Patrick was one of these great missionaries, and he spent much of his adult life bringing the message of God’s mercy and grace to the people of Ireland and that is what we celebrate on March 17th.
St. Patrick’s Day is also the perfect time of the year for all of us to contemplate the certainty that Jesus Christ is real, a part of the Holy Trinity of God, that he was born of a virgin into human form, lived among us for approximately 33 years, was crucified for our sins, and rose again to defeat death once and for all. That all who call on his name will be saved (Romans 10:13). This truly is the greatest fact of all humanity. Have you made the decision to repent and place your faith in Christ? Why not do so today?
Many blessings to you all as we celebrate the blessed life of St. Patrick. Éirinn go Brách!
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