Today many countries are observing St Patrick’s Day. This was originally a religious holiday to celebrate the life and ministry of Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint. Now it’s largely regarded as a celebration of Irish history and customs.
Like most holidays, the historical basis of St Patrick’s Day has been lost. It’s so adorned with shamrocks and leprechauns that we forget its true meaning. For most, it’s just an excuse to attend a parade, wear green, and drink beer. A lot of beer!
Cities across America canceled large-scale celebrations again this year as a precaution against COVID-19. But these cancellations in no way diminish the holiday. Today isn’t about parades or leprechauns; it isn’t even about beer! It’s about a courageous Christian who gave his life preaching the gospel to the Irish.
From Chains to Churches
Patrick was born in Britain near the end of the fourth century. At the age of sixteen, he was captured by pirates who sold him into slavery in Ireland. He served as a shepherd for a pagan chieftain. Having been raised by believing parents, he became a Christian during his enslavement.
After six years, God arranged for his escape. A voice in a dream told him, “Behold, your ship is ready.” He fled two hundred miles to the coast, where he found a boat with a crew willing to take him on board. He reunited with his family in Britain and studied to enter the priesthood.
Yet God called him to return to Ireland. He dreamt of an Irish man delivering him a letter that began, “The voice of the Irish.” Like Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9-10), Patrick heard the Irish people speaking to him: “We implore you, O holy boy, to come here and be with us.”
His family and church leaders discouraged this. The Irish were known for treating runaway slaves harshly, and their Druid priests were hostile to new religions. But Patrick answered God’s call. He spent the rest of his life preaching the gospel to the pagan Irish. (Legend says he used a shamrock to illustrate the Trinity.) He baptized thousands of converts, ordained clergy, and taught the Irish to read and write.
His ministry wasn’t easy. His preaching was often opposed, and attempts were made on his life! He writes, “The Lord rescued me from slavery many times and saved my life from mortal danger twelve times over.” He confesses, “Every day I am expecting to be killed or robbed or reduced to slavery.”
Even so, he persevered in his efforts to evangelize the Irish until his death on March 17, A.D. 461.
Toward a Meaningful St Patrick’s Day
Patrick sets an admirable example for us to follow. It’s unlikely the Lord will call us to preach the gospel in a place it’s never been heard. But Patrick displayed godly characteristics we can strive to cultivate in ourselves.
First, he was a man of prayer. He writes, “When I came to Ireland [as a slave] I spent each day tending sheep and I prayed many times during the day…in a single day I would pray up to one hundred times and in the course of the night I would pray nearly as many times again.”
He kept practicing this habit when he returned to Ireland as a missionary. He writes, “I pray to God that He might give me perseverance in my testimony until I pass from this life to Him.”
Second, he was a man of faith. God told him, “Your ship is ready.” He writes, “But the ship was a long way off, about two hundred miles and I had never been in that place nor did I know anybody there.” Yet he trusted God and reached the ship safely.
His voyage home included a 28-day trek through a “deserted country.” The crew ran out of food. The ship’s captain challenged him – specifically, his Christian faith. Patrick declared, “Convert and turn with your whole heart to the Lord my God, for nothing is impossible for Him.” After he said this, a herd of pigs appeared on the roadway!
He displayed immense faith during his escape from Ireland. How much more did he display by returning to it? He willingly went back to the land of his slavery in obedience to God’s compulsion. And he regularly put his life in God’s hands by entering dangerous situations for the sake of the gospel.
Third, he was humble. He begins his autobiography: “I Patrick, am a sinner, the most uncultured and smallest among all the faithful, indeed many people consider me to be worthless.” In his letter to Coroticus, he introduces himself as “an unlearned sinner.”
He concludes his autobiography, “Do not credit me with the little I have done according to God’s pleasure. Rather conclude, as is indeed true, that anything I achieved was a gift of God.”
St Patrick’s Day is more than an excuse to party; it’s an opportunity to enrich our faith. Patrick was a remarkable Christian who deserves our commemoration and imitation. May the Lord grant us his willingness to further the gospel no matter the risk!
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