Many myths and legends have circulated throughout the centuries since St. Patrick’s death. What do we know about the man who has come to represent Irish pride (Erin Go Braugh!)? What, if anything, can we Christians celebrate on the holiday that bears his name?
First of all, St. Patrick (whose birth-name may have been Maewyn Succat) was not Irish at all. He was born in Roman occupied Britain during the late 4th century. His Father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest. But according to his autobiography called Confessio, “I did not know the true God.” When he was 16 years old, he was captured by invading Irish marauders and taken to Ireland.
He was enslaved for 6 years, and worked as a shepherd. And it was during this time that he was transformed by God’s sovereign grace. In his own words,
[T]he Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.
Patrick eventually escaped from his captors, and with many others traveled nearly 200 miles to the coast where he convinced traders to take him back to Britain. Once home, he voraciously studied the Scriptures and began to feel a burden for the lost souls his captors and the rest of the Irish people. So when God called him to Ireland, he obeyed.
Legends and fairy tales aside (i.e., banishing snakes and a blooming walking stick), Patrick was an incredibly influential missionary to the Irish people. He understood the missional heart of God, and used clever and culturally relevant ways to communicate the gospel. One example is his use of the shamrock to illustrate the triune nature of God. Some believe that St. Patrick designed the Celtic cross which he used to supplant the pagan sun god (the circle) and exalting Jesus Christ (the cross). Whether they are strictly true or not, one thing is certain. St. Patrick, motivated by God’s grace, shared the gospel with the people of Ireland. And through his efforts, many pagans converted to Christianity, and many churches were established with faithful Christian leaders.
And that’s something worth emulating and celebrating. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Soli Deo Gloria! [To God be all the glory!]