Monday, March 17, 2014

The Feast Day of Saint Patrick

Today is the feast day of St. Patrick, perhaps one of the most famous saints.  Many people will celebrate this day by drinking green beer, watching a parade, drinking more green beer, baking soda bread, drinking more green beer, eating corned beef and cabbage, drinking more green beer, and drinking more green beer.

But what can we learn from those early Irish saints like Saint Patrick?  How can they inform our spiritual lives?

If you looked at the early life of St. Patrick, you would not think that he was on a path to be a great leader of the early church. He was born into a noble family, kidnapped, and sold into slavery — an experience which would later make him successful in God’s mission in ways he never could have anticipated. Because of his time as a slave, he could understand the language when he returned to bring Christianity to Ireland.

Later scholars have suggested that Patrick and his compatriots were sent to minister to the Christians who were already there, not to conquer the natives. Other scholars have speculated that one of the reasons that Christianity was so successful in Ireland was because Patrick took the parts of pagan religions that appealed most to its followers and showed how those elements were also present in Christianity--or perhaps incorporated them into Christianity as practiced in Ireland.

All scholars seem to agree: Patrick was essential in establishing Christianity in Ireland. And he wouldn't have been so effective, had he not spent time there as a slave, which meant he learned the language and the customs of the country.

So, when we despair over our bad fortune, perhaps we can remember St. Patrick, born into a noble family, sold into slavery--an experience which would later make him successful in God's mission in ways he never could have anticipated.

In many ways, modern people are living in as distant an outpost of empire as those ancient Celtic monks. Many of us are far from the corridors of power, whether they be in the U.S., in China, or in India. Most Christians reading this post are far from the places where Christianity flourishes today, in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

But instead of despairing and longing for the mythical glory days of past times when the Church was more influential in the U.S., perhaps we should think of ourselves as Celtic monks, trying to till a very rocky, thorny soil. We should take comfort and encouragement from how much God can accomplish, even in the most unlikely circumstances. There’s plenty of transformative work for us to do today.

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