This article was originally published through Convivium magazine.
It’s the time of year that green beer, Guinness and whiskey flow, bagpipe-filled parades line the streets and the Chicago River runs green. St. Patrick’s Day has become an iconic celebration of the Irish country and culture. But while we don silly hats and pinch those who aren’t wearing green, a rich tradition of faith and sacrificial obedience to God’s call underline the history of the holiday. A real man who’s life reads a little like Ben Hur or the Count of Monte Cristo, who devoted himself to serving the people who, by any worldly standard, he should have hated the most.
The best information we have on St. Patrick comes from The Confession of St. Patrick – his testimony and account of how God worked in his life. A young man living in Britain during the time of the Roman Empire, he was kidnapped and made a slave in Ireland. Forced years of servitude, however, drove him to the Lord. Despite his father’s background as a Christian leader, Patrick did not know or follow the Lord prior to his kidnapping but years as a stranger in a strange land, working as a shepherd-slave, Patrick grew a deep, slowly unshakable faith.
God eventually provided an escape for Patrick, and told him to flee. With God’s provision every step of the way, he made his way back to Britain – to his family and to his home. But God had not finished the work he had begun in Patrick. Years later, he had a dream. He recounts this in his confession, saying “And there I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was [Victorious], coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were, `The voice of the Irish’; and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice … and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: `We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.’”
Thus began a missionary journey that would come to define the nation of Ireland. What happened from there is loosely outlined in Patrick’s confession, but beyond that most of what we know is shrouded in myth and mystery. The Confession of St. Patrick makes no reference to three-leaf-clover-filled analogies of the Trinity or his banishing the snakes from Ireland. We do however know that Patrick struggled through his life. Betrayal at the hands of friends, repeated times in slavery and captivity, the longing for home, left their marks and inflicted their scars.
Yet despite this, the great privilege of being called by God to share His good news, far outweighed the pain of struggle. Patrick said “… even if I wished to leave them and go to Britain—and how I would have loved to go to my country and my parents, and also to Gaul in order to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of my Lord! God knows it! That I much desired it; but I am bound by the Spirit, who gives evidence against me if I do this, telling me that I shall be guilty; and I am afraid of losing the labour which I have begun—nay, not I, but Christ the Lord who bade me come here and stay with them for the rest of my life, if the Lord will, and will guard me from every evil way that I may not sin before Him.”
God called Patrick to the Irish – to pour out his life to give witness to them of the goodness of God. Patrick received his missiological training, not from a book or a seminary, but from the painful, refining process of being shaped, driven, reformed through the most difficult circumstances, pressed and refined in the hands of the loving, almighty God. He was not a man who clung to worldly comforts. In his confession he says “I know perfectly well, though not by my own judgment, that poverty and misfortune becomes me better than riches and pleasures. For Christ the Lord, too, was poor for our sakes; and I, unhappy wretch that I am, have no wealth even if I wished for it. Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, or whatever it may be; but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God Almighty, who rules everywhere, as the prophet says: Cast thy thought upon God, and He shall sustain thee.”
So how did the remembrance of this missionary evolve into a corned beef eating, whiskey swilling, river dyeing celebration characterized by bagpipes and drunken riots?
Until the 1700s, St. Patrick’s Day was a Catholic feast celebrated exclusively in Ireland – not as a national party filled with drunken escapades, but as a quiet day of reflection and prayer spent in church and at home. On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the British military held the first ever St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City. Celebrating with their national music, the parade brought Irish soldiers together to celebrate their roots and heritage and slowly St. Patrick’s Day transformed into a celebration of, at the very least a simplified version of, the Irish country, culture and pride.
This year, perhaps we can create a mixture of the two, add some reflection to our green beer and whiskey, and ask God who it is He wants us to give our lives to witness to. St. Patrick was called to return to the very people who had enslaved him, and his obedience shaped a nation.
Who are the people God has placed around you, people who need to know the truth of Christ? Through the history of our faith, God has called people out – sending them to people desperately in need of him. Whether it’s a neighborhood in the next city, or a country in the next continent, God is calling each and every one of us out. So this St. Patrick’s Day, while we drink our green beer and reflect on the history of global mission, let’s echo the heart of St. Patrick, cast ourselves into the hands of the Almighty God and ask, who it is He wants us to give our lives to witness to?