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Dr. Heidi ManningI’d like to tell you about what it was like growing up in my father’s home. Once a year, I would come down the stairs to have breakfast. I’d pour milk on my Cheerios and discover that the milk was green. It was then I remembered it was March 17th- St. Patrick’s Day. Soon my father would appear wearing the most ridiculous ensemble. St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal for my dad and he likes to make special note of his Irish heritage on that day. For those of you who don’t know, my maiden name is Kennedy. As he says, my dad is just enough Irish to have the name, and that seems to give him free reign to don the most outrageous outfits. Matching is not a requirement for his St. Patrick’s Day holiday garb, the only requirement is that it is green. For years, he wore an ugly, green tie lovingly made by the quilting ladies in his congregation. It was made of about 8 different scraps of green fabric. This tie would be worn with a green strip shirt and green plaid pants—yes this was the 1970’s when men wore plaid pants. The outfit was completed with lots of other festive bling—buttons, suspenders, hats—the more gaudy the better.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school in the Twin Cities and saw how the people of St. Paul celebrate this holiday that I understood why my dad, who grew up in St. Paul, always seemed to go a bit overboard on St. Patrick’s day. It was then, I began to understand its importance to the Irish-American people. I learned that my dad wasn’t the only crazy Irish person out there.
There was a time in our country when it was not popular to be Irish. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Irish immigrants were some of the lowest in American society. No one wanted to be like them and they held some of the dirtiest jobs. But those Irish immigrants have come a long way. Now it seems like everyone wants claim they are a little Irish. Even amongst the Norwegians of Fargo/Moorhead, there was St. Patrick’s Day parade here on Saturday. Census data tells us that next to German, Irish is the second most commonly claimed ancestry in this country. Irish is listed in the top 5 ethnic backgrounds in 48 of the 50 states (only Hawaii and New Mexico are excluded from this group).
For those of you who don’t know, today is St. Patrick’s day. And you might see some folks wearing green. You might find green food coloring added to some of your favorite food and drink. But I’d like to pause and reflect on who St. Patrick was and what we can learn from his life.
So who was St. Patrick? Well, he is one of the three saints that have been overly commercialized--third behind St. Nicolas and St. Valentine. He is known as the patron saint of Ireland as he is the one who brought the gospel to the Irish people. But what was his life like?
Patrick was born in Roman Britain in what is now Scotland around 387 A.D. and lived until around 461. Since he lived 16 centuries ago, determining what is fact about his life and what is legend can be difficult.
There are many legends associated with St. Patrick. For example, it is said that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. However, as a scientist, I must point out that we know with a bit of certainty there were never any snakes in post-glacial Ireland. So Patrick is no more responsible for ridding Ireland of its snakes as St .Urho is responsible for ridding Finland of its grasshoppers.
Ever wonder what the deal is with shamrocks and St. Patrick’s Day? Why do we see those three leafed clovers on so many of the decorations? Well, another legend about St. Patrick is that he used the shamrock to describe the Trinity to the Irish people. He used it to illustrate that there are three divine persons in the one God. This is how the shamrock became associated with St. Patrick. This legend seems far more plausible than snakes or grasshoppers. Whether this is fact or legend, it doesn’t really matter. The shamrock is a nice example of using a concrete and familiar item to teach people about an abstract concept.
So what do we know for certain about St. Patrick? We do know that as a 16 year old child he was captured and brought to Ireland as a slave. After about 6 years of slavery serving as a herdsman, he had a vision that it was time for him to escape. He escaped his captors by walking 200 miles to the coast and eventually caught a boat back to his homeland. Upon returning home, he entered a monastery. A few years later, Patrick had a vision that he should return to Ireland. He did indeed return to Ireland as an ordained bishop where he spent the rest of his life spreading the gospel to those people. During his life, he also wrote the text to our closing hymn which is known as St. Patrick’s breastplate. From the text you can hear what was important to Patrick.
A few years prior to Patrick’s return to Ireland, the Catholic Church in Rome sent Pallidius to be the first bishop to the Irish Christians in 431. Pallidius’s appointment wasn’t necessarily to convert the Irish people but to serve the existing Christians living in Ireland. However, it seems he was terrified by the fierce opposition of a Wicklow chieftain and abandoned the sacred enterprise.
When Patrick returned to Ireland, he spent his time telling the druids about Christ. When Patrick preached, it was the first time they had heard the gospel in their own language. It was through his enslavement that he learned the language. As a result, he was really the first successful Christian missionary in Ireland and is thus credited with converting the Irish to Christianity.
From this segment of his life, I think there are two important things we can learn from St. Patrick that could be relevant to our own lives.
In the lesson that Mark read today from Genesis, we hear about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. While this action was intended to get rid of this annoying little brother, we hear in versus 20 that “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” We see a similar story line in St. Patrick’s life. He too was enslaved. While being a slave cannot be seen as a good thing, he was able to turn this in to something good. He used his knowledge of the Druid language that he learned during his enslavement to be effective in spreading the gospel later in his life.
So what can we take from St. Patrick’s life? In our lives, we will inevitably face hardships and difficulties. Our lives won’t be without some bumps in the road. It is never easy to endure those times and in the midst of tragedy and turmoil it might be difficult to think beyond the present or see how anything good that might come from our situation. These “character building” experiences will challenge you. But take heart. Just like He was there for Joseph and Patrick, know that God is with us in our struggles. And as we endure through these tough times we may not know how the challenges we face might be used by God for future good.
The second thing we can take away from the life of St. Patrick is how he was effective in spreading the gospel because he knew the language and culture of those he met. Others like Pallidus, were Christians living in Ireland, but they were not as effective in converting the people. Patrick knew the Druid language and culture and consequently was more effective in relating to the people. How can this be relevant to your time here at Concordia? Through the classes you take you will be exposed to and learn about new ideas and cultures. Some of you might even feel enslaved by your studies at Concordia, but you don’t know now how the things you are learning here might be used later in your life to further God’s work. You don’t know where God will send you or what visions you will have. But you will leave here equipped with knowledge and skills so that you are ready to be responsibly engaged in the world
I’m certain Patrick was not aware as he tended sheep in a field in Ireland how he would become beloved by entire nation and how hundreds of years later, across the ocean in a new land that was unknown to him, people would put on gaudy, green ties, have a parade and toast the good he accomplished after facing adversities in his life. As I hope you might do today even if you are only a wee bit Irish.