Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick, British Missionary to Ireland

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Yes, March 17 marks the anniversary of the death of Patrick, British missionary to pagan Ireland. This morning as we gathered around our school table ready for another day of home education, I read aloud to my kids from one of my favorite books, Martha Zimmerman's Celebrating the Christian Year. Zimmerman, the wife of a Presbyterian pastor, has laid out the church year with much wonderful information about each celebration, plus crafts and food to go along with each. And her chapter on Saint Patrick's day is certainly one of her best.

Martha Zimmerman starts the chapter asking about what ideas we normally associate with March 17? Shamrocks? Leprechauns? Wearin' of the green? Ireland? And then she relates Patrick's story as taken from his Confessions, so much of the chapter is written in Patrick's own words, rather than relying on legend and hearsay. She relates that he was born around 389 AD of British Christian parents and was a Roman citizen when Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire which included Britain but not Ireland. Although his parents were Christians, Patrick was not a believer until extraordinary circumstances and the call of God revealed Christ to him.

When Patrick was about 16 years old, the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble, and Rome could no longer protect Britain from marauding Irish pirates who often kidnapped the British and kept them as slaves. Patrick was indeed captured by Irish pirates and was made to keep flocks of sheep more than 200 miles inland for the next six years. It was in those long days of solitude that Patrick heard God's call. Patrick wrote, "And there the Lord opened my perception of my heart's unbelief so that I remembered my sins even though late, and turned with all of my heart to the Lord my God...." While tending flocks, he used to pray "constantly" during the day and often during the night as well. He claimed, "the spirit was fervent within me." God gave Patrick a vision of his escape and return to England which he soon accomplished.

We are not sure how long Patrick remained in England before God gave him the dream that sent him back to convert the land of his imprisonment to Christ, but return he did. As Zimmerman writes, "Patrick stands out in history as one who recognized and accepted God's call, left family and friends, and took the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Ireland" (p. 119). Before Patrick returned to Ireland, this pagan country was ruled by magic and superstition. Under the influence of the Druid priests, the Irish worshipped nature: the sun, moon, wind, water, and fire. The common belief was that both good and evil spirits inhabited the hills and trees.

In an article entitled "The Saint Patrick We Never Knew," we discover the importance of Patrick's obedience to God in converting the Irish:
The inadvertent results of his conversion of Ireland, however, were equally astonishing and long-lasting. First, as Cahill makes the strong case in How the Irish Saved Civilization, it is Patrick's conversion of Ireland that makes possible the preservation of Western thought through the early Dark Ages by the Irish monasteries founded by Patrick's successors. When the lights went out all over Europe, a candle still burned in Ireland. That candle was lit by Patrick.... And since it was the Irish monks who served as the bridge between classical Christianity and the Middle Ages, medieval Christianity tends to reflect the celebratory nature of Irish spirituality rather than the gloom and sin-centeredness of its [Roman] predecessor.
So because of Patrick's obedience to the call to share Christ's gospel with the very people who had captured him years before, much of the literature of the classical and medieval periods, most likely including the Scriptures themselves, were preserved for future generations, including ours. A wonderful book of historical fiction that provides insight into Patrick's personality as well as the power of God in converting the entrenched Druid presence is Madeleine Polland's Flames over Tara which I read aloud to the boys last year as part of Sonlight 6's first half of world history. The back cover of the book reads, "The year was A.D. 432, and Patrick, first Bishop from Rome to Ireland, arrived in a pagan land whose spiritual life was completely in the power of the Druid Priests and their 'magic.' A mild, warm-hearted, humorous man, Patrick, with his handful of followers, began what seemed an impossible task."

Zimmerman tells us:
Patrick gave his life to share the good news of the gospel, laboring among the Irish people, who had originally kidnaped and enslaved him. With great faithfulness he shared Scripture and the teachings of the Christian faith, converting chieftains and their clans, winning the pagan population to Christ, baptizing hew believers, planting churches, and training leaders for those churches. When Patrick died on March 17, around AD 461, the church was firmly established in Ireland.
I have to admit that I have a very, very difficult time with the evangelical Christians I was reading on Facebook this morning who claim that they wear orange on Patrick's feast day, stating that green is for Catholics and orange is for Protestants. I fear that they are missing the point of this day. We are celebrating today a bold man who obeyed God's call with words almost identical to those of Isaiah in Isaiah 6:8: "Here I am, Lord. Send me!" Obedience to God should not garner "sides" but should be celebrated in unity. Hasn't enough blood been shed in Ireland between the green and the orange? We who love Christ and serve Him are on the same side; Satan is our enemy, not each other. Out of respect for and remembrance of Saint Patrick who apparently was the first missionary to take the gospel outside of the Roman Empire, I think that green should be worn on Saint Patrick's Day. Both Catholics and Protestants can take a leaf from Patrick's book and fervently lead others to Christ to the very ends of the earth, no matter the consequence. Wear orange on Reformation Day if you like, but not on Saint Patrick's Day which to me seems rather like a slap in the face of Patrick and other Catholic missionaries.

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