St. Patrick's backstory

March 17th, 2021

March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day. You know, the day when people celebrate being Irish, or pretend to be Irish by wearing green clothes, shamrock glasses, and eating and drinking to excess. But, what does that have to do with the patron saint of Ireland? How in the world is that insanity related to what was originally a Christian holiday?

Well, the Feast of St. Patrick is centered on the life and ministry of a British man named Patrick who lived in the 5th century (that’s the 400’s!) His father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest; but Patrick experienced great hardships. When he was sixteen years old, Irishmen kidnapped him when they raided his country (the dislike between the Irish and the British goes waaaaaay back). They took him back to Ireland to be a slave. He was able to escape and return home, but after studying to become a priest and taking his orders, he felt God calling him back to Ireland to preach the gospel to the Irish—who were, at the time, mostly a pagan and polytheistic (believing in many gods together) people.

The ripple effect

To make learning about God easier for people who’d always been taught there were different gods for different things, Patrick used the ever-present shamrock. A typical three-leafed shamrock represented the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—but was tied together. Three-in-one, just like God. Patrick was able to preach and teach in Ireland for almost thirty years before he died. He may not have converted as many people as others who went to Ireland for the sake of Christ, but the Catholic Church honored him by declaring him a saint. He still is held in the highest regard by the Irish Catholic Church.

Patrick’s original color was blue, but because of his use of the shamrock to teach about God, people would wear green ribbons or shamrocks to celebrate on his day. That common practice eventually became the tradition of wearing green all over to honor his day. Also, the craziness of the celebration and parties that we hear about today has its root in the Christian basis of his story. When Patrick was sainted and given a holy day, it became an official feast of the Irish Catholic Church. What that meant is that even though March 17 falls during Lent, the Catholics were allowed to break their Lenten disciplines (no alcohol, no meat, and so on) in celebration. As the church lost its importance in daily life, the ritual of the day lost its power over the gluttony of the party. Still, the more we know about where the story began, the better we can celebrate this day in a way that honors the man who honored Christ. Patrick was one man. He survived being kidnapped and enslaved. He answered God’s call. And he used forgiveness instead of resentment to change an entire country’s story.

Becoming a catalyst

Sometimes it’s easy to think that we as individuals don’t make a huge difference in the world. I bet there were even times when Patrick questioned the efficacy of his ministry in Ireland. However, persistence over time allowed him to create great change. We all have the opportunity and power to change the world, one moment and one relationship at a time. The really scary part is that we can change it for good or for bad.

Today we are going to think about the ways other people have made a difference in our faith journeys, and how we can make a positive difference for God in the world. When we remember the change St. Patrick was able to make in the name of Christ (and really what other ONE person changed the entire world more), then we too can be confident that God can use us to improve the lives of others.

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