Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Today we all celebrate being Irish – after all, “Everyone’s Irish on March 17!” is advertised year-round (the photo is a permanent fixture in the Guinness StoreHouse in Dublin). It’s a day that has come to mean a party – Irish Stew, beverage-flavoured confections (Baileys fudge, Guinness cupcakes, Jameson jello shots, etc.), and talking with a fake brogue while wearing something (or everything!) green. It’s a day of parades and parties, of sports matches and Irish pride. And these celebrations happen all over the world – Montreal has a famous parade, Chicago dyes its river green, the green lights illuminate the Sydney Opera House and Paris’ Eiffel Tower and Pisa’s Leaning Tower and South Africa’s Table Mountain and Dubai’s Burj Al Arab (and MANY other structures!), Montserrat (and Newfoundland and Labrador) declare a public holiday, celebrations last throughout March in Japan and Switzerland. The day was even celebrated on the International Space Station by in 2011 when Catherine Coleman wore green and displayed her Irish flutes; this year Cmdr Chris Hadfield tweeted a photo in a green bow tie and a soundcloud recording of Danny Boy!
The history available of the person of St. Patrick is quite interesting. Yes, he’s Ireland’s (primary) patronal saint, alongside Brigid and Columba. He was a slave in Ireland, escaped to England, and returned to the Emerald Isle as an ordained missionary, later being consecrated Bishop there. Tales have him using the shamrock to teach about the Trinity, credit him with the absence of snakes (despite evidence that there were not snakes in post-glacial Ireland, though possibly referring to the serpent symbolism of the native Druids). He is connected to two styles of crosses (pattée and saltire), his stick grew into a living tree, he spoke with ancient Irish ancestors to promote Christianity. A bell removed from his grave 60 years after his death has been enshrined and can still be seen in the national Museum of Ireland. Though never formally canonised by a Pope, he is known around the world as a saint, and numerous churches are named after him.
It’s interesting to me to see so many people get so excited about this day, given that it is a religious feast day. It seems to me that people get excited about this day despite that fact that it is a religious feast. In asking some folks last year why they were celebrating St. Patrick, I got some ‘enlightening’ responses: “He got the snakes of the island, didn’t he?” and “he found a 4-leaf clover” and (a rather slurred) “who cares, it’s a party!” It seems to me that the average “Irish for a day!” party-goer really isn’t interested in the history so much as the present reality and the joy that they are getting from it.
Perhaps this is a trend for us church-folks to take notice of – people aren’t necessarily keen to learn all the history of the church all at once, if at all. I think people who want to come to church are more interested in the ways that the church is active in the world now rather than focusing just on what happened in our history. Please know: I am by no means suggesting that we ignore our history and traditions. Rather I think that we should be aware of them as we engage with the world in contemporary and meaningful ways. I think we’re challenged to take the lessons that we have learned from our history and apply them into our modern culture. Lessons such as those from St. Patrick’s life: the growth of faith in the midst of negative circumstances, the commitment to evangelism despite adversity, the bravery to answer the call to ministry, the empowerment of others to exercise their own ministry.
So perhaps today we’re being called to celebrate all aspects of St. Patrick – whether it’s a patronal mass or a green-tinted pint – or both. Perhaps today is a starting point for us to try to find new ways to engage the world, carrying with us the history and tradition into a world that may not know (or care) about the past but has the potential to be engaged in the present and the future. Let’s celebrate the spirit of St. Patrick in Christian love and joy. Let’s take a day to celebrate the unity we share – because today, we’re all Irish.