The Patrick of St. Patrick’s Day

March 14, 2010 Religion

Whilst the official website devotes a page to the history of the man himself, Patrick and what he stood for is of marginal importance to the festival. He may be the patron saint of Ireland and draw a crowd like no other patron saint of any other country in the world, but the festival isn’t about promoting what Patrick preached. In fact, in a country, where the government won’t allow any overt religious advertising by any group, the organizers could hardly promote Christianity even if they wanted to!  So what does St. Patrick’s Day celebrate in Ireland today? For many, it’s simply an opportunity for ‘the mother of all parties’. For others, it’s about celebrating being Irish. All around the world, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated by the Diaspora Irish communities, from the United States to Australia. Many of Dublin’s visitors for the St. Patrick’s Festival are visitors from those countries, celebrating their roots and family connections with Ireland. Of course, there are still those who celebrate it because of its religious significance. Certainly, the Protestant community in Ireland has always given Patrick a special place in their religious history, and with good reason too. For Christians in Ireland, North and South, St. Patrick’s Day can and should be celebrated because he was, without doubt, the most significant missionary ever to have visited these shores.  He risked his life in Ireland for the sake of the Christ, and whilst later generations of monks and priests added myth and legend to his story, the real Patrick was a robust Gospel preacher and a man of prayer, a man who suffered greatly for his Lord and Saviour as he planted churches throughout Ireland. There are at least three things that we should celebrate about Patrick and always keep in mind on St. Patrick’s Day.

Patrick’s faith

The only works that scholars can confidently attribute to Patrick are ’The Confession’ and ’The letter to Coroticus’. In them, we have Patrick in his own words describing his Gospel, his motivation to preach it, his love of the Irish people, and his willingness to give up his own native land and people to serve God in Ireland. One thing that stands out clearly in ‘The Confession’ is Patrick’s faith in Christ as his Lord and Saviour. Patrick was converted to Christ during the time of his captivity in Ireland when he had been kidnapped by Irish raiders and made a slave. He testifies that at the time of his conversion ‘I did not know the true God..’ and that ‘…the 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..’ The amazing thing about Patrick’s conversion is that he was no stranger to Christianity before his conversion, since his father was a deacon and his grandfather a clergyman in the British church. Despite a Christian upbringing, he tells us that he had been a rebellious young man. In reflecting on his conversion, Patrick writes: ‘before I was humbled, I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came, and in his mercy raised me up, and indeed lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall.’ Patrick well knew that salvation was a free gift of God and that it was by God’s grace alone that he had come to a living faith in Christ Jesus. Even with an increasing secularism in the both the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, the vast majority of Irish people, like Patrick, have had a church or chapel upbringing, but how many have gone beyond that to a true and living faith in Christ as Lord? How many of those thousands celebrating St. Patrick’s Day could celebrate having that same relationship with Jesus Christ as Patrick evidently had? Surely, amongst all those celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, the people with most to celebrate are those who have inherited that biblical faith of Patrick and who themselves know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

Patrick’s Gospel

Secondly, nobody can read can read these works of Patrick and fail to notice how deeply his mind was immersed in the teaching of Scripture. He was a man of the Bible and knew his Bible. It is estimated that his works include about 180 quotations from the Bible. This is not surprising since his ‘Confession’ was not about confessing his sins, but about the Gospel message he preached. He was not only himself a converted man but he preached a biblical message of conversion.  His works are free from the novel errors that at that time were creeping into the western church, such as the adoration of Mary, the invocation of the Saints, prayers for the dead, and veneration of the bones of the Saints. Instead, Patrick’s message centred on Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and ascended, reigning as Lord over heaven and earth. This, he determined to preach throughout Ireland, so that ‘…through me, many people would be reborn in God…’ Consequently, his message centred on the need for repentance from sin and trust in Jesus Christ. For example, in ‘The Letter to Coroticus,’ a welsh chieftain who had raided the Irish coast, slaughtering and enslaving many of Patrick’s converts, Patrick not only condemns his actions but calls on this nominal Christian chieftain to repent and trust in Christ.  His Gospel message is well summarized in his quotation of Mark 16:16 at the end of that letter: ‘He who believes …shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be condemned.’ This is the message that Ireland desperately needs to hear afresh today.  Now, no less than in the time of Patrick, Irish men and women are far from God and in need of His grace and mercy through Christ Jesus.  God is ignored; God is sidelined; the name of Jesus Christ is one of the most common of all swear words, and probably very few outside of evangelical churches have the remotest idea of what the Gospel message is all about.  All the while, chapels, and churches are emptying, and Christianity is viewed as merely one option in what is fast becoming a pluralistic,  multi-cultural society as new people groups enter Ireland from eastern Europe, Africa, and China.  There can be no doubt; the inhabitants of Ireland need to hear the Gospel preached faithfully by Patrick, preached faithfully once again.  And that’s the second reason for Christians to rejoice on St. Patrick’s Day, for the Gospel that changed lives then can still do so today since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Patrick’s Mission

It would probably be true to say then, that the spiritual state of Ireland is as dark now as it was in the time of Patrick.  Many know of Patrick’s conviction to bring the Gospel to Ireland.  In a famous passage in ‘The Confession’, he tells of a dream he had in which ‘…I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as it were from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter.  ‘The Voice of the Irish’…were crying as if with one voice, “we beg you, holy youth, that you will come and walk again among us.”’ As strong as this inner conviction was, it would be wrong to conclude that this was his only or primary motivation. In a long passage in ‘The Confession’, Patrick justifies his mission to Ireland to the British church, who had opposed his going, by pointing to the command of Jesus to go into all the world and make disciples.  Especially important to Patrick were the words of the prophet Hosea, ‘Those who are not my people I will call my people, and those not beloved I will call my beloved, and in the very place it was said to them, You are not My People, they will be called “Sons of God.” Patrick had not only to get over the opposition of his fellow churchmen in Britain for his mission to Ireland but also he had to have a personal change of heart so that ‘ I should care and labour for the salvation of others.’ If Ireland’s spiritual state is to change and the Gospel of Christ is to be brought to the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of Ireland, then Evangelicals have got to be like Patrick, to actually care for the salvation of others and  move beyond the safety (and perhaps even opposition) of their own people and community to share the Gospel.  We do not need to wait for a heavenly vision or dream to care for our neighbours, since we have the clear command of the Scriptures, as Patrick pointed out, calling us to be fishers of men.  Patrick gives us few details of his missionary work in Ireland,  but that he suffered much in preaching the Gospel in Ireland is very evident.  Patrick’s successful missionary work came at a great personal cost and we have much to thank God for in that he was prepared to pay it, but surely the important thing to keep in mind on St. Patrick’s Day especially, is our responsibility for a mission to Ireland in our generation.  This may be costly to us, but of immense value in the Kingdom of God.

More Patricks, please!

The spiritual state of Ireland and the opportunities for Gospel work in Ireland are so great that we have a great need of more Patricks.  Ireland, North, and South, desperately needs Christians who are thoroughly committed to Jesus Christ to work anywhere in Ireland, teaching the Gospel and planting churches.  It needs people, who have a deep and prayerful concern for the spiritual welfare of the inhabitants of this island, and who are willing to ‘carry the cross’ to bring that good news.  All can pray, all can share the Gospel with those around them, and some can travel and work as missionaries throughout Ireland.  With the influx of so many nationalities, such missionary work will have reverberations, not only in Ireland but also in the countries of origin of many of these new immigrants.  So, pray for the Lord of the harvest to raise up harvesters for the harvest field and especially more Patrick’s for the island of Ireland.

Taken from The Irish Church Missions

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