I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgment Day.
– St. Patrick
For the 247th consecutive year, New Yorkers will line 5th Ave. in celebration. Chicagoans will pour green dye into the river that winds through their high rises and train bridges.
Pubs, sports bars and frat houses will display cardboard clovers and lime lights as revelers across the nation raise their collective Guinness’s high in staged reverence. On March 17 a nation will celebrate a dim memory—a memory that will quickly fade from the national consciousness like the remnants of a bad hangover.
What so many will miss amid all the green beer and parading is the story of a saint who, at least euphemistically, ran the snakes right out of a nation; the story of a former slave who escaped bondage only to return later to evangelize his captors.
St. Patrick’s story is a story about the call of God and the triumph of cultural relevance. It’s the account of a man whose early life experiences made him the most able to speak into a Pagan culture that had previously so rejected Christianity.
The Historical Saint Patrick was born sometime in the late 4th Century to a Roman magistrate living in Britain and his possibly Gallic wife. More than 400 years had passed since Julius Caesar had crossed the English Channel and envisioned a Roman outpost. In the wake of Constantine’s religious reforms, Britain was not only overwhelmingly Latin, but overwhelmingly Christian as well.
Resisting tribes had been pushed back, north past Hadrian’s Wall and west, to Ireland. Nearly incessant warring between the Pagans and the Romanized British had drawn thick cultural lines, though an increasing fur trade helped to smooth the way for Christian missionaries eager to convert their godless neighbors.
At 15 or 16, Patrick was abducted in his native Britain by marauding pirates, taken to Ireland and sold into slavery. During his 6-year sojourn among the Celts, he learned the language and culture of his captors. By Patrick’s accounts in his Confessio, his master was brutal and savage and only a continued reliance on God gave him the strength to suffer through slavery.
Six years after his capture Patrick escaped back to Briton, where he returned to live with his kinsman. After reestablishing a life among family, Patrick dreamt of Ireland and of evangelism and, by his own admission, heard the voice of God on more than one occasion—a call that led him to formally pursue the priesthood.
Catholic historians claim that he studied under St. Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre until his own ordination as Bishop sometime in the early 430s. Shortly afterward, Patrick was commissioned to take the Gospel to Ireland. Patrick was not the first missionary to Ireland, there had been, by some accounts, quite a few before him. However, it seems that Patrick was by far the most successful evangelist of the Irish.
Patrick’s success, was at least in part, due to his knowledge and application of Celtic culture. Drawing on symbols and imagery native to the Irish, Patrick used every available channel to bring the gospel to the nation of his former captivity.
Though it is doubtful that Patrick ever used the Shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity, it is certain that he did not use the traditionally Roman vehicles of transmitting faith. Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, says that "The early Irish Christianity planted in Ireland by Patrick is much more joyful and celebratory (than Roman Christianity) in the way it approaches the natural world. It is really not a theology of sin but of the goodness of creation, and it really is intensely incarnational."
From the way that Patrick observed the Celtic tradition of exchanging gifts to the way that he highlighted Christianity’s belief in an afterlife (a belief shared by the Celts), Patrick used a tactic similar to the one Paul used on Mars Hill in Acts. Rather than convert the Irish to Roman culture, Patrick focused on the incarnational aspects of Christ, letting God work through their Celtic culture rather than letting his Roman form of Christianity work against it.
Susan Hines-Brigger, author of An Irish Journey into Celtic Spirituality, notes, "Whereas the ancient Celts worshiped pagan gods for nearly every natural setting, Celtic Christians praised God’s design and creation of all things natural." Patrick took the assumptions of the pagan worldview and turned them on their head, in a way that was culturally recognizable.
Following Patrick’s Lead
Saint Patrick is quite a model for 21st Century Christians. Enslaved in a foreign land whose pagan practices were often hideous and cruel, Patrick responded with faith. After his escape, his ears were tuned to God’s voice, leading him, ironically, back to the very place of his captivity. Finally, Patrick made the former foreign land his home in order to bless its inhabitants with the Gospel message, and we see him do it in a way that showed respect and understanding for a people so utterly different than his own.
So, this March 17, while everyone else is celebrating all things Irish by decking themselves out in green, drinking only the darkest Irish beer, or tuning in to Public Radio’s celebration of Celtic music, let us be challenged by the sacrificial life of St. Patrick, looking for opportunities to turn our enslavements into blessings, speaking the message of the gospel message in a way that respects the culture of those around us while challenging them to change.