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Many people either celebrate St. Patrick’s Day or at least know about it. We have such things as green beer, rivers being dyed green, corned beef and cabbage, the wearing of something green, and pictures of shamrocks as well as comments about luck or the luck of the Irish. These multiple traditions have developed over the course of a few centuries. The Irish have even adopted some of these traditions themselves, one primary objective being to attract tourists. However, St. Patrick’s Day was originally a religious holiday, and it still is in some segments of Christianity. So who was Saint Patrick, and why is this holiday celebrated?


The fact is, we do not know much about Saint Patrick. There is even conflicting information about his real name and the date and place of his birth. It is believed he was born between 385 and 387 AD, though later dates are possible. Some sources say Saint Patrick was born in Roman Britain, where England is today, while others say he was born in what is now Scotland. Regardless, it seems that he was born into a fairly well-to-do family. As for his name, he has been variously listed as Magonus, Patricius, Cothirthiacus, Maun, Succetus, and Maewyn Succat, as well as a couple of other, disputed names. Patrick only uses the name Patricius for himself in his writings, and for the sake of simplicity we will call him Patrick from this point forward.


It is not certain where Patrick was buried when he died, though tradition holds that his place of interment is in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, having been incorporated into the grounds of Down Cathedral. The dates of Patrick’s death are not fully agreed on either, ranging from as early as 457 to as late as 493, some sources claiming he lived to be 120, although this is not known with any certainty. Some of these same sources list the date of his passing as March 17th, either in 461, 492, or 493. Circa (about) 460, or the year 461, are commonly accepted dates for the year of his death, but scholars of Irish history have a preference for a later date. In any case, we can see that Patrick lived a very long time ago, in the early centuries of Christianity when even then the Roman Catholic Church was already growing in power and influence.


There are likewise few sources about Patrick’s life. From Patrick himself there are two sets of writings that we have—Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus and the autobiographical Confessio (The Confession of Saint Patrick). We have a short account of Patrick’s life and mission in Confessio, and even there, much  of it concerns his Christian spiritual journey including his gratefulness to God, some of the struggles he faced, and his heartfelt burden for the souls of the pagan Celts. A few other outside sources, such as the Irish annals, the Book of Armagh, and Historia Brittonum, provide a sketch of this man’s life.


Patrick’s father was named Calpurnius, described as a Senator and tax collector (decurion) of an unspecified city in Roman Britain. His grandfather, Potitus, was a priest from a place in that same general region called Bonaven Tavernia. As a youth, Patrick was not an active believer. According to the Confessio, he was kidnapped from his parents’ dwelling place or villa at the age of 16 by Irish pirates. During his six-year captivity in Ireland he was born again. A few years after returning home to Britain, Patrick stated he had a vision in which he was instructed to return to Ireland. After some years of study, Patrick was ordained to the priesthood, returning to Ireland about the year 432 as a Christian missionary. During his life Patrick was not always welcomed by the Irish locals and not always well-liked by his fellow believers, but he was devoted to what he believed was his God-given mission to evangelize the pagan Celts in Ireland.


Despite the challenges he faced, Patrick successfully evangelized Ireland. The date of his death, March 17th, became an official Christian feast day in the early 1600’s, a feast day being an annual religious celebration or a day dedicated to a saint. It is observed by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion (particularly in the Church of Ireland), the Eastern Orthodox Church (a split-off from Roman Catholicism), and the Lutheran Church. It commemorates Patrick, the coming of Christianity to Ireland, and also generally the heritage and culture of Ireland. In addition, believers who are in liturgical denominations (Protestant denominations retaining some elements of Catholic traditions) go to church services on St. Patrick’s Day. Historically, the restrictions on eating and on drinking alcohol during Lent were lifted for that day, which has encouraged this holiday’s drinking tradition. In Ireland (including Northern Ireland), the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador (for provincial government employees), and for the British Overseas Territory of Montserrat, St. Patrick’s Day is a public holiday. In various other countries it is celebrated, in more countries than any other national festival, in fact, those countries being the USA, the UK, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and New Zealand, especially the ethnic Irish who live in those countries.


Although we know this man as Saint Patrick, the Catholic Church never canonized him (declared him to be a saint), as this procedure did not begin until centuries after his death, the first formal canonization of a deceased person occurring in 993. We know from the Bible, however, that people who are born again are considered by God to be saints, period (2 Corinthians 1:1, 13:13; Philemon 1:7). Despite Patrick not being canonized, he is venerated (highly reverenced and respected) as a saint in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. In the Eastern Orthodox he has been given a special title of honor peculiar to their branch of Christianity, the title of equal-to-the-apostles. They also call him the enlightener of Ireland. Patrick is regarded as a saint by the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran Churches. Patrick is also called the patron saint of Ireland. A patron saint is, in Catholicism, Anglicanism, or Eastern Orthodoxy, the heavenly advocate of a person, family, nation, place, craft, activity, clan, or class. However, the Word of God declares that there is but one intercessor or advocate in heaven, interceding on behalf of believers: Jesus Christ (Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:1).


There are some legends about Patrick, some plausible, some not. One was that he was supposed to have used the three-lobed shamrock leaf to illustrate the triune nature of the Godhead. We do not know for sure if this actually happened, but given Patrick’s burning desire to lead the Irish Celts to Jesus, he may well have done this. It is also claimed that Patrick cast all the snakes out of Ireland. Well, Ireland has no snakes to begin with, so how could a man cast out what was not there? His walking stick supposedly grew into a living tree, he allegedly spoke with ancient Irish ancestors, and so on, which can be dismissed as what they are—legends.


Again, there are many customs that have grown up around St. Patrick’s Day over the centuries: The aforementioned drinking of alcoholic beverages, wearing green, eating certain foods, the prominence of shamrocks and the idea of good luck, various festivals, dyeing beer or rivers or streams green, and so on. To delve into all this is beyond both the scope and the purpose of this blog. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that in a number of places this day is a religious holiday, not a secular one, and that the way Patrick lived can teach us some things about what it means to be a disciple of Christ.


Why the date, beyond the fact that Patrick, according to tradition, died on March 17th? In the early church, even predating Roman Catholicism, the death dates of believers were far more likely to be celebrated than their birthdays. Their date of death was their homegoing to heaven to be with Jesus. Over time this developed into a commemoration of the death dates of martyrs, but the death dates of other persons who are considered to be extraordinary Christians (saints) are also added to ecclesiastical calendars.


Many of you who are reading this blog are Protestants just as we are, therefore we do not observe an ecclesiastical calendar, canonization, and so on. At the same time, as Christians we should not be observing many of the secular traditions of St. Patrick’s Day, such as drinking alcoholic beverages or believing in luck, which is actually a form of superstition. I do not suppose it is an issue simply to wear something green. After all, the lush greenery of Ireland—including its shamrocks—has contributed to one of its nicknames, The Emerald Isle. It is not a problem to eat the foods, either, such as corned beef and cabbage, although I, personally, would rather have corned beef on rye bread.


So what do we do with St. Patrick’s Day if we are not ecclesiastical observers of the day, nor are secular people?

Think of what we do know of Saint Patrick. We might not embrace the Roman Catholicism of which he was a part, yet from the testimony he left to us there can be no doubt that he was anything other than a genuine and devout Christian. He was generous, humble, forgiving, and loving, courageous enough to risk persecution and even death, filled with knowledge of the Scriptures, and endued with a deep desire to reach the lost, in particular the pagan Celts of Ireland to whom Patrick sincerely believed God called him as a missionary.


Patrick could have returned to his homeland, and because his family was of above-average social status and wealth, he could have been a prominent and financially secure man in his own right, complete with a wife and children. Instead he turned away from all that, giving his life to the Lord in order to serve others, depending on God more than on man to supply his needs. If ever there was a true disciple of Jesus Christ outside of the twelve apostles, it was Saint Patrick.


Discipleship for each of us will look different depending on what God calls us to do. Some Christians are called to give up everything, even life itself, if need be. Others may have to give up very little, able to have spouses, children, regular jobs, and sometimes even considerable wealth. As is true of all real disciples, however, they are to be thankful for their blessings but to hold them loosely enough that if they had to give some or all of it up for the Lord, they could. Since family is so intensely important to God, it would be hard to imagine giving them up, but we certainly should love God more than anything or anyone in this world.


On this St. Patrick’s Day, think of what you have learned about this great man of God who lived so long ago. Consider what he had to do to have such a strong relationship with Jesus—the praying, the reading of and meditation upon God’s Word, even the fasting perhaps. Except for those whose health prevents them from fasting, these elements are not only within the reach of every Christian, they should be an integral part of our lives. We may not all be called to the life that Saint Patrick lived, but we are all called to be disciples of Jesus Christ.


Luke 14:25-33:  Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate* his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it—lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”

*Not literally hate, but to love all these less than the Lord.


Matthew 5:13-16, 22:37-40, 28:18-20: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”…Jesus said to him,   “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”…And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.



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