Monday, March 17, 2014

Late on the Eve of St. Patrick

Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day.

The holiday miscellanea surrounding the feast day of the Apostle to the Irish are largely North American inventions. There is no history of green beer or drunken shenanigans associated with the day. Indeed, until a generation ago, Irish pubs were closed in honour of the religious observance.

In North America, by contrast, the Romano-British Patrick is largely ignored in an orgiastic celebration of some fantasy of Irishness. In a society where Easter is about bunnies and Christmas about an obese elf, this is hardly surprising.

Yet there is a saintly story to be told about the escaped slave who returned to bring the Good News to his former masters. There is even a widely available autobiographical text generally thought to be authentic. While there are legends, there is also a great degree of fairly well-established truth.

I won't be wearing green, nor will I be chugging green beer. But I will take a moment to consider the saint whose death in 461 is the reason for the feast day.

I leave you with a short hagiography of Patrick by the late Professor Stephen Reynolds from the book For All the Saints, and with a video of the famous hymn attributed to the saint himself.

Patrick 17 March
Missionary Bishop in Ireland, 461 — Memorial 
Today we honour Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who brought Christianity to the northern tribes of that country in the early fifth century. 
A native of Cornwall or Devon, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates who sold him into slavery in their homeland. Six years later he fled his Irish masters, returned to Britain, and was eventually ordained to the priesthood. He had a vision that he would return to the land of his former captivity, and around the year 438 the vision came true. He was made a bishop and given charge over the mission to the Irish. 
Despite his chronic sense of personal unworthiness, Patrick proved to be an effective organizer, and his mission quickly evolved into a vibrant institution. He also encouraged the growth of Irish monasticism, and within a few generations of his death monks and nuns had replaced warriors as the heroes of the Irish people. 
The great hymn called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” was probably not composed by him, but it does reflect the kind of Christian spirituality which he planted in the heart of the Irish nation — a deeply penitential, but still more deeply alive to the sustaining presence of Jesus Christ. 
O God, we thank you for Patrick,
whom you took into your service,
to bring within the freedom of your household
those who once enslaved him.
Encourage us through his example,
that we may know your power made perfect in our weakness,
and delight in serving others
for the sake of him who became servant of all,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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