Saint Patrick’s Day Talking Points
3/17/22
 
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” – Philippians 1:21 ESV
 
Today is St. Patrick’s Day. When I was a kid, the first thing I learned about St. Patrick’s Day was that if you didn’t have any green on, you got pinched. But as time went on, I learned that St. Patrick’s Day was about all things Irish: Leprechauns, Shamrocks, Limericks, green food and beverages, and so forth. And there were certain things I just assumed about St. Patrick—that he was an Irish Catholic who was awarded sainthood for some noble deed, and that we honor him on his birthday, March 17th.
 
Quiz:
 
  • Patrick was obviously Irish. 
FALSE – He wasn’t Irish but a Roman Briton, likely born in Scotland.
  • St. Patrick’s Day celebrates his birthday on March 17th. 
FALSE – That’s actually the recognized date of his death.
  • St. Patrick is a Catholic Saint. 
FALSE – He has never been officially canonized as a Saint.
  • Saint Patrick’s official color is green. 
FALSE – The official color first associated with St. Patrick was sky blue.
 
What was he really like? Who was the real St. Patrick? And what does his life say to us today? Well, let’s start at the beginning. Patrick was not born in Ireland, he was born in Bannavem Taburniae (possibly modern-day Kilpatrick, Scotland), which was part of Roman Britain, around AD 375. In many ways, it was the best of times and the worst of times in the Empire. In 333, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and made it the official religion of the Roman world. So the church once persecuted now found itself in power. It was the time of St. Augustine and his great vision of the city of God. Many believed that the kingdom age was being ushered in by great missionary efforts of that time. In fact, the Roman Empire had extended as far as the British Isles, and the gospel had reached there as well.
 
However, the Roman Empire that had maintained the peace—the Pax Romana—for hundreds of years was beginning to disintegrate. The far-flung bastions of Roman power were beginning to fall to the hoards of barbarians who were sweeping in from the East and the North. It was the time of Attila the Hun, the time of the Vandals, the Goths, and the Visigoths. It was a time of great turmoil.
 
Into this time, a Roman couple living in Britain, Calpurnius and Conchessa, gave birth to a son they named Maewyn Succat. His Latin name was Patricus or Patrick as we call him today. His father Calpurnius was a Roman Magistrate, an English nobleman. His father was also a deacon in the village church, and his grandfather Potitus was a Christian priest and apparently had a deep devotion to Christ, which he tried to pass on to his grandson, Patrick.[1] So Patrick grew up a church brat. And like many church brats, he didn’t pay much attention to what his father or especially his grandfather had to say about the Christian faith or the Christian life. He said: “At that time, I did not know the true God…had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments”[2] Sound like any teenagers you know?
 
When Patrick was 16 years old, he was hanging out with a couple of friends on the beach in the breakers as they swept up on that long crescent beach and crashed over the rocks at Bannavem. They were sitting in the mouth of a cave, drying themselves by the fire, thinking about what kind of mischief they could get into next, when all of the sudden they saw a band of pirates coming around the headland.
 
Now these pirates were Irish Druids. They were nothing like Captain Jack Sparrow in the movies—these were really bad men who did really bad things. Patrick was caught and quickly bound with coarse ropes, herded onto some boats grounded in the cove, and then dragged on board the pirate ship. Think about it, here was a 16-year-old boy watching his whole way of life slip away with every stroke of the oar as they pushed the boats steadily west. A British nobleman’s son, he’d had it easy enough. The Christian faith hadn’t meant much to him. The sound of pebbles crunching beneath the hull signaled their arrival. Yanked from the boat, he was thrown into a guarded pen to await sale as a slave.
 
Patrick was sold to a Druid Chieftain and he was assigned to a short tempered warrior who drove him some 200 miles inland into the dark forests of the Emerald Isle. Finally, he was untied and handed over to the king’s herdsman, who put him to work feeding pigs and herding sheep. And when Patrick was the least bit lazy or got out of line, he was beaten with a club. So, Patrick was introduced to the unspeakable horrors of slavery. He recalls:
 
 I did not then believe in the living God, not even when I was a child. In fact, I remained in death and unbelief until I was reproved strongly, and actually brought low by hunger and nakedness daily.[3]
 
God was beginning to get his attention. By the grace of God, he endured the rains and frost and the snows and the ice on that hillside for six years. He remembered the words of his Christian grandfather that there was a true God, a God who cared, a God who could deliver. So, during his miserable state, in that far country, he lifted up his eyes and wondered how he might find this God. He remembered the stories he had heard so often about how God loved us so much that He sent His only Son named Jesus into the world, in a far away corner of the Roman Empire, and that there on a cross, He had been put to death—not for His own sin but for our sin, and really the sins of the world.
 
 So as a slave, Patrick remembered the waywardness of his life, the sins for which he felt that he was now being punished, and the teaching of his grandfather. And he says: “It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognized my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness, and had mercy on my youthful ignorance…”[4] He went on to say: “I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out [Ps. 69:14], and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall.”[5] 
 
 Patrick truly became a saint, not canonized by any church, but made a saint by God himself. His sins were forgiven, his heart was transformed by the power of God, he became a new creature in Christ Jesus, he became a child of God through his faith in Jesus Christ. This young man in the dark forests of Ireland, in the depths of his own sin, found the Savior and became a saint—like we all do by grace through faith, when we turn from our sin and trust Christ.
 
 Looking back, Patrick saw his slavery in Ireland as a time of spiritual growth. Night and day he spent out on the mountain pastures talking to the God his Christian grandfather had told him about. Later, in his short Confession, he described it this way:
 
 I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy—as I realize now, the spirit was burning in me at that time.[6]
 
 Six years as a slave on that rain-swept, frost and snow-covered mountainside, God forged this boy into a man. He remembered the words of Psalm 50:15: “Call on me in the day of your distress, and I will set you free, and you will glorify me.”[7] Then one night he had a dream. And in that dream, he had a vision, and heard a voice: “You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country.” Patrick believed God was speaking. The voice came again. “Look—your ship is ready.”[8] That night he fled. Believing that God was leading him, Patrick plunged through the woods, climbed the hills, forded the creeks which separated him from the sea, avoiding roads lest he be discovered. He hiked, climbed, and finally staggered some 200 miles through the dense forests of Ireland.
 
 And when he didn’t think he could take another step, he emerged from the woods and onto the beach, there was a ship… just as the voice had told him. A ship loaded with Irish wolf‑hounds and they were getting ready to set sail. Patrick summoned his strength and frantically found the captain, and begged for passage on that ship, promising that his family would repay the fare. The surly captain took one look at this sorry excuse for a human being and refused. Patrick slowly retraced his steps along the beach. He later recalled: “I began to pray while I was going; and before I even finished the prayer, I heard one of them shout aloud at me: “Come quickly—those men are calling you!”[9] God had heard his prayer and Patrick concluded: “They were pagans, and I hoped they might come to faith in Jesus Christ. This is how I got to go with them, and we set sail right away.”[10] So Patrick left Ireland.
 
 They first sailed to Gaul, which is modern day France, where they got off the ship with their cargo. They searched for food, and it was scarce because the land had been ravaged by war. So they trekked for a month inland, and when their food ran out, the old captain challenged him: “What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful—why can’t you pray for us, since we’re in a bad state with hunger? There’s no sign of us finding a human being anywhere!” Patrick replied with confidence: “Turn in faith with all your hearts to the Lord my God [Joel 2:12], because nothing is impossible for him [Luke 1:37].”[11] Just then a herd of pigs crossed the road in front of them and they soon became Bar‑B‑Q.
 
 Patrick was in his mid‑20’s when he was reunited with his family. They welcomed him home and hoped he’d never again be separated from them. But he could never get out of his mind those Irish Druids who had held him captive and forced him into a life of slavery. For six years, he had languished as a slave, enduring the elements and the harsh winters and living without the comforts of a house or a home, living out on a mountainside tending pigs and sheep for those pagan people. So he plotted his revenge. For years, he planned the revenge he was going to have on his persecutors and slave masters. But it was a different kind of revenge than you might expect. The revenge Patrick had planned was to bring the light of the gospel to those living in darkness in Ireland.
 
 During this time, he returned to Gaul where he trained for the ministry. There, he was ordained as a deacon, then as a priest. And the great monk Saint Germanus was his mentor, and he taught him a life-long love for the word of God. During those years, he would watch the sun set on that spiritually darkened island of Ireland, and his heart would return to those people. In the middle of the night, he could hear the thousands of souls in those darkened forests crying for the bread of life, but there was none to break it.
 
 After 20 years of study and preparation, one night Patrick had another vision that changed his life:
 
 I saw, in a vision in the night, a man whose name was Victoricus coming as it were from Ireland with so many letters they could not be counted. He gave me one of these, and I read the beginning of the letter, the voice of the Irish people. While I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea. They called out as it were with one voice: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for.[12] 
 
 So Patrick believed that he’d been called by God to return to the land of his harsh slavery to be the Apostle to the Irish.
 
 And so having been trained and ordained, he set sail for Ireland around AD 432. Germanus had sent Palladius one year before, and he was immediately murdered by some Scots. But Patrick had a sense that God would protect him. Now remember, Ireland was under the dark sway of idolatry. Druid priests performed human and animal sacrifices to appease the local gods. They practiced spiritism and black magic through incantations and occult rituals—it’s the basis for witchcraft today.
 
 After setting foot once more on those hostile shores, he plunged into the depths of those dark forests, and he confronted those fanatical druids with the gospel. Danger and hardship remained his constant companions. Many sought his life. Twice he was imprisoned by his enemies—once for two full months. Intimidated? Not Patrick:

I bore insults from unbelievers, so that I would hear the hatred directed at me for travelling here. I bore many persecutions, even chains, so that I could give up my freeborn state for the sake of others. If I be worthy, I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name. It is there that I wish to spend my life until I die, if the Lord should grant it to me.[13]
 
But what was the message that Patrick proclaimed? One thing is very clear from his writings. It was the simple Gospel of Christ, even as we proclaim from the pulpit. It was the story of the Son of God who came as a man to die for our sins, and who rose again to offer forgiveness, and eternal life. He simply preached the Gospel of Christ, which on his lips took on the power of God. He declared himself to be an ambassador of Jesus Christ to Ireland. So he confronted the Druid kings and priests, and he overwhelmed them with the power of the gospel.
 
 And so mighty was this missionary that he crossed Ireland from one side to another, time after time after time. And there was hardly any place on the Emerald Isle where the power of the gospel had not been felt. And the results were absolutely amazing. By the time of Patrick’s death, he had completely dislodged the ancient pagan strongholds and laid a foundation for a Christianized Ireland. Indeed, Patrick himself was amazed. He wrote:
 
How has this happened in Ireland? Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God [Hos. 2:23]?[14]
 
By the time he had finished, Patrick had established hundreds of churches, where they practiced baptism by immersion. The only debate they had in the Irish church was whether to baptize once or three times, the latter for each member of the Trinity. By the way, Patrick is credited with using the three-leafed shamrock to illustrate the Trinity.
 
 What a great man of God he was! For 30 years, Patrick hiked the paths and forded the rivers of that green island to see men and women “reborn in God” and come to know the Christ he loved so much. He declared: “It is right that we should fish well and diligently, as the Lord directs and teaches when he says: ‘Follow me, and I will may you fishers of men [Matt. 4:19].’”[15] Patrick concluded: “It is right to spread abroad the name of God faithfully and without fear, so that even after my death I may leave something of value to the many thousands of my brothers and sisters—the children whom I baptized in the Lord.”[16]
 
 CONCLUSION
 
 How successful was Patrick? Some estimate that 120,000 Irish converts were liberated from the dark power of the Druids, emissaries of the devil. He founded hundreds of churches and ordained hundreds of Bishops and other ministers. He also trashed the Druid’s savage practices and uncivil laws. He transformed civil government, working with Irish chieftains to establish godly laws, laws that respected the value of human life. He wrote the Liber Ex Lege Moisi, which were extracts from the Laws of Moses. He directed the compilation of the laws known as Senchus Mor, revising old laws in accordance with biblical precepts. Liber and Senchus Mor became the basis for civil law in Ireland.
 
 Patrick found the island almost completely a pagan and savage land and left it mostly Christian. Historian Seumas MacManus writes: “All histories of all countries probably could not disclose to the most conscientious searcher another instance of such radical change in a whole nation’s character being wrought within the lifespan of one man.”[17] The Irish people before Patrick were worshiping idols and enslaving others by the ruthless law of the sword. After Patrick came with the gospel, the worship of the living God was predominant throughout the nation, and the Irish people “left the conquering sword to be eaten by rust, while they went far and wide again over sea and land, bearing now to the nations—both neighboring and far off—the healing balm of Christ’s gentle words.”[18] 
 
 Within a century, this once pagan land had such a strong Christian presence that they in turn sent out missionaries to Scotland, England, France, Germany, and Belgium. One historian wrote: “It was thus, when the whole world seemed irrecoverably sunk in barbarism . . . the Irish went forth into every part of the world” to spread Christianity.[19]  When you calculate the summation of his extraordinary work, it would make Patrick one of the greatest missionaries of all time! And as you read his words, you find that with time he gained a depth of maturity in the Christian life that few others reach.
 
 When he came to the moment when he would confront the High King of the Druids on their sacred feast day, he wrote what might be called a prayer or a hymn, known as the Laurica or Breastplate. This is what he girded himself with as he confronted the Druids at the very source of their dark power. Hear his words:
 
 I bind me to-day,
 God’s might to direct me,
 God’s power to protect me,
 God’s wisdom for learning,
 God’s eye for discerning,
 God’s ear for my hearing,
 God’s word for my clearing.
 God’s hand for my cover,
 God’s path to pass over,
 God’s buckler to guard me,
 God’s army to ward me,
 Against snares of the devil,
 Against vice’s temptation,
 Against wrong inclination,
 Against men who plot evil,
 Anear or afar, with many or few.
 Christ near,
 Christ here,
 Christ be with me,
 Christ beneath me,
 Christ within me,
 Christ behind me,
 Christ be o’er me,
 Christ before me.
 Christ in the left and the right,
 Christ hither and thither,
 Christ in the sight,
 Of each eye that shall seek me
 In each ear that shall hear,
 In each mouth that shall speak me—
 Christ not the less,
 In each heart I address
 I bind me today on the Triune—I call,
 With faith in the Trinity—Unity—God over all.
[20]
 
Patrick basically said like the Apostle Paul confessed to the Philippians: “For me to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). That’s the real meaning of St. Patrick’s Day. May his example encourage us to greater boldness, and while we can, go on the offense and take back territory from the devil and those caught in his snare. Like Patrick, let’s be God’s liberating army to those in darkness!
 
 Prayer: Heavenly Father, we thank you for the dramatic conversion of this teenage slave, who became a mighty missionary of the gospel in Ireland. May Patrick’s life be an inspiration for us to share the Good News with those in darkness and make a positive salt and light difference in our culture. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
 
[1] Confession of Saint Patrick, par. 1 found at https://www.confessio.ie/etexts/confessio_english#
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., par. 27.
[4] Ibid., par. 2.
[5] Ibid., par. 12.
[6] Ibid., par. 16.
[7] Ibid., par. 5.
[8] Ibid., par. 17.
[9] Ibid., par. 18.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., par. 19.
[12] Ibid., par. 23.
[13] Ibid., par. 37.
[14] Ibid., par. 41.
[15] Ibid., par. 40.
[16] Ibid., par. 14,19.
[17] Seumas MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland, (New York: Irish Publishing, 1922),126.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., 232.
[20] Ibid., 114.