What do you know about Saint Patrick? Did you know…
- that the color first associated with Saint Patrick was blue?
- that Saint Patrick was from England, not Ireland?
- that Saint Patrick was a slave for six years?
- that Saint Patrick was a devout Christian missionary?
- that Saint Patrick was NOT a leprechaun? Ok, you probably knew that one…
Born somewhere on the main English Island (approximately 383 – 415 A.D.), Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders at 16 years old and enslaved by a warrior chief to feed pigs. Patrick was a Christian and prayed constantly during this time. After six years of enslavement, Patrick escaped and ran 200 miles to a harbor and sailed back to England. Only to be called by God to return as a missionary to Ireland.
Ireland was populated by pagans and barbarians. Patrick faced opposition by the druids, an religious group of men who practiced magic and were educated in matters of history and law. Opposed both by Druids and Arian priests, he planted orthodox churches and monasteries, mostly on the northern and western sides of the island. During his ministry Patrick wrote: “Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, 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.”
By the end of his life (493 A.D.), he was said to have baptized ten thousand, and planted over a hundred churches. Patrick strongly opposed slavery; having been a slave himself and having witnessed many of his Christian converts being abducted and sold as slaves. Within Patrick’s lifetime, the entire Irish slave trade had ended.
There is much that is legendary about the life of Patrick and it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. One legend of Patrick is that on the night of Samhein (or Bealtine), when all fires were to be extinquished on the island, he lit a bonfire on a mountain in protest! Another legend explains the absence of snakes in Ireland by stating that Patrick drove away all the snakes, chasing them into the sea. Most notable of all is the shamrock legend. It is said that in order to explain the concept of the Trinity to the Irish pagans, Patrick used a three-leaf shamrock to illustrate God’s triune nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Later, Christians identified the three leaves with the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13); and in the event you found a four-leaf clover, the fourth represents luck (hardly a Christian concept).
The Confession of Saint Patrick is Patrick’s own autobiography which relates his enslavement, conversion, and ministry. In his confession, Patrick provides a summary of his theology:
“There is no other God nor ever was nor will be after him except God the Father,* without beginning; From whom is all beginning; Who upholds all things as we have said: And his Son Jesus Christ whom together with the Father we testify to have always existed; Who before the beginning of the world was spiritually present with the Father; Begotten in an unspeakable manner before all beginning; By whom were made all things visible and invisible; Who was made man, and having overcome death was received into heaven to the Father: And he hath given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and God:*e In whom we believe, and we await his coming who ere long shall judge the quick and dead: Who will render to every one according to his deeds, and has poured out abundantly on us the gift of the Holy Spirit, even the earnest of immortality, who makes those that believe and obey, to be the sons of God the Father, and join-theirs with Christ; Whom we confess and adore—one God in the Trinity of the sacred name.”1
Many details of Patrick’s life are lost to us and we can’t be sure about some of the particulars. What we do know is that Patrick of Ireland was a courageous Christian missionary who followed God’s call to share Christ in a difficult, pagan culture. So if you want to celebrate in the true spirit of Saint Patrick of Ireland, take some time to tell your non-Christian friends and acquaintances about the unique, triune God of the Bible… and get rid of any snakes you may run across in the process.
1 Saint Patrick, The Confession of St. Patrick with an Introduction and Notes, trans. Thomas Olden (Dublin; London: James McGlashan; James Nisbet and Co., 1853), 44–46.
In honor of Saint Patrick, enjoy this classic and hilarious video from Lutheran Satire: St Patrick’s Bad Analogies!