Saint Patrick – Who was he and why is 17 March celebrated in his memory?

Almost everyone knows that Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in March, they know it has something to do with Ireland, and that there is generally large amounts of beer consumed. But most people don’t know who Saint Patrick was, why the day is celebrated, or why and how beer is involved. Saint Patrick definitely lived a mans life.

Saint Patrick’s day is a day that is celebrated internationally every 17th Day of March. Just like the Christmas tradition is based on Christian themes yet celebrated by secular society, Saint Patrick’s Day is also a day of celebration based on Catholic roots and traditions also celebrated by secular society. The 17th of March is supposedly the day that Saint Patrick died. With the exception of St. Nicholas, St. Patrick is celebrated more than any other saint. Established in the early part of the 17th Century as a feast day, the holiday occurs in the middle of the Catholic practice of Lent, but the Catholic denomination opened the restriction of alcohol for one day of feasts and celebration in honor of Saint Patrick. This is how beer was introduced into the Holiday, but beer (or at least the 4th century version of it) also played a role with St. Patrick during his travels through Ireland. Green beer wasn’t created until 1916 when a blue dye was added to the beer, making it green.

But, who is Saint Patrick, why is this day celebrated in his memory, and how was beer introduced in the first place?

Saint Patrick was born in Rome occupied Britain in the 4th Century as an unbeliever. He died around 461 AD, but not before he impacted the destiny of Ireland as a Christian Apostle.

Patrick was a mans man. He lived a rugged life, evangelized Ireland with both beer and miracles, and eventually fought the raging enemy that comes for most men in the middle of the night. And he won. St. Patrick didn’t have massive crusades like Billy Graham, he went into the wild of Ireland, tribe by tribe, chieftain to chieftain, building friendships and winning their trust. Once he had that trust, he planted Christian communities among the tribes, and these in turn converted the entire regions with holy living, miracles, generosity, healthy families, and prosperous farms. Beer also played a role, though beer in the time of St. Patrick isn’t the same beer we recognize today.

As he traveled Ireland, always at his side was a brew master named Mescan. Patrick won over many chieftains by sharing the beer that Mescan had developed. When the chieftains saw this man named Patrick, they noted his superior way of living as well as tasted a superior beer that he offered. Irish people were converted by the thousands.

Apparently, beer also played a role in many of the miracles that St. Patrick performed. According to Irish legend, when the Apostle dined with the high king of Tara, “the wizard Lucatmael but a drop of poison in St. Patrick’s cruse (and old English word for pitcher), and gave it into Patrick’s hand; but Patrick blessed the cruse and inverted the vessel, and the poison fell thereout, and not even a little of the ale fell. And Patrick afterward drank the ale.”

There are numerous deeds of legend attributed to St. Patrick, such as growing a tree from a staff or driving snakes out of Ireland. Apparently, he used the shamrock to teach the Irish about the trinity. We don’t know if any of that is true but what we do now that that Patrick courageously strolled into violent pagan villages, befriended the chieftain, won both the man and the tribe with hospitality, served the needy, and by the end of his life had drawn most of Ireland to the gospel of Jesus Christ. What a life!

But what is most amazing is how Patrick came to evangelize Ireland in the first place.

Patrick was born in Britain to a Christian deacon. His grandfather was also a priest, but Patrick tells us in his Confessio that he had no faith of his own by the time he was sixteen, when he was kidnapped by pagan raiders and taken north to the Irish realms. He spent 6 years as a captive and was made to tend herds on the frigid pasturelands while being ill fed and ill treated. It was during this period of suffering in his life that he converted to the Christianity of his fathers. There were no Christian followers in his life at that time, but he remembered the teachings of his father and his grandfather. “More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved. 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.” he wrote.

During a season of fasting and prayer, Patrick heard a voice speak up and tell him to head to the coast, that a ship was ready to take him home. His journey was arduous and it took several years, but Patrick eventually made his way home. Sometime later, Patrick began experiencing more visions that turned his attention back to the land where he had been held captive. After other similar visions, Patrick returned to the land of this captivity to spread the gospel of Christ.

How awesome is that. Patrick had been cruelly abused during his six years among the Irish tribes. It couldn’t have been easy, and we can safely presume that he battled fear as well as bitterness, yet he answered the call anyway and, in time, shaped the course of history by his obedience.

What kind of man endures six years of cruel captivity and yet emerges with a new and vital faith? What kind of man returns to the land of his former captivity because he is touched by the needs of the people there? What kind of man converts warring pagan tribes with kindness, miracles, and beer? The answer is a holy man, an anointed man, a man who is chosen by God. Indeed, a true man, in the highest and grandest sense.

But, things did not go as you might think for Patrick. He was betrayed by his own church in Britain. We might naturally expect that the church in Britain would be thrilled with Patrick’s success and eager to help. This didn’t prove to be true. Instead, the church in Britain allowed a storm of gossip and innuendo to undermine Patrick, distract him from his pioneering work, and threaten to damage him for the rest of his life.

He tells us in his Confessio that after he had already known great success among the Irish tribes, he learned he had been betrayed back home. It occurred during a season that he was being considered for the office of Bishop. Elders who opposed this promotion began circulating rumors about him. This wounded Patrick

This scandal had to do with a sin that he’d confessed to a friend decades before, a sin he had confessed thirty years before and which he committed when he was only 15 and not yet a Christian.

Apparently, this friend told the church about Patrick’s transgression to stop his promotion to bishop.

This is unfortunately typical of the type of assault many men have endured, but in Patrick’s case the stakes were high. He was already transforming the Irish realms with his message and many new converts counted on his integrity.

Patrick is now fighting bitterness and admits that his bitterness might destroy him – forever. We should be thankful for his honesty. If we haven’t fought this same merciless enemy yet, the odds are that we will. For a man to become a great man, he will have to defeat the force of bitterness in his life. No one escapes it. There is enough offence and hardship in the world to assure that all of us will be wounded and betrayed, all of us will have an opportunity to drink the sweet tasting poison of bitterness against those who have wronged us.

The art of surviving untainted is to learn the art of forgiveness. It is a hard thing to do, and it seems to be harder for men.

The majority of men seem to have souls coated with Velcro, where everything sticks – particularly every memory of a wrong, a hurt, a betrayal, or an offense. Men hold on to wrongs done them, rehearse those wrongs, make excuses for failure out of those wrongs, and frequently poison their lives with the bitterness they keep circulating through their hearts and minds. It makes them small, blaming, angry souls rather than the large hearted beings they were called by God to be. It damages everything they do. 

The keys to forgiveness are simple but costly, given our pride and self-pity. Someone wrongs us. It hurts. We work against our lesser nature and try to find the hook of compassion. John didn’t hurt me because he hates me; he’s feeling threatened. Or Jenny lashed out but I should remember her background. Or those kids stole from me, but crime is all they know, all they’ve seen in the culture around them.

There are other reasons to forgive. We should cling to any of them that moves us to do the right thing, it helps to remember we sin and have done a fair amount of damage ourselves. Frankly, it should scare us that God himself will not forgive those who do not forgive others. There is also the negative example of those who have made bitterness their life’s work. Small, angry, at war with life, at war with God, anchored to the past, and apart from the Holy Spirit.

No, not Saint Patrick and not me. Nope.

So we forgive. We send away the wrongs done to us. We let people out of the little cages we keep them in while we enjoy our feelings of moral superiority. We hand the feelings of wrong to God and refuse to ever take them back. Then we shut up and never mention the matter again. When the times come, we put our arm around the offender and we ask him how he is. Usually a hearty meal together helps the process along, particularly if the offender is a he.

This is what it means to be clean of soul. To be a Christian, and to be a man. Anything less and it is the same as setting our manly hopes on fire and living with the ashes.

It was not easier for Patrick than it is for us, but he eventually did forgive. There are four words in his Confessio that tell us he considered the matters closed, words that we ought to learn to use ourselves. After describing the whole affair of his betrayal, he wrote simply, “I have said enough.” And he said no more. There might be a hint of the matter here or there in his writings, but they are vague: “I give untiring thanks to God who kept me faithful in the day of my temptations, so that today I may confidently offer my soul as a living sacrifice for Christ my Lord.”  This only helps us. Patrick had to fight, had to turn the whole matter to the Lord time and again. He knew, though, that the death of bitterness begins when we decide, “I have said enough.” Thank God for Patrick’s example.

Remember this on the day you celebrate Saint Patrick’s day. Just like Memorial Day and Independence Day in the USA, it is more than parades and BBQ. It’s a day to forgive and let bitterness go.

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