For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go. — Psalm 91:11 (NLT)
“March 17th is Saint Patrick’s Day, and everyone knows that Saint Patrick was from Ireland, right?” I casually asked our adult Sunday School class last week. Most dutifully nodded their heads or raised a hand in agreement, except for two who blurted out: “That’s not right! Patrick was from England!”
Feigning surprise, I asked those two to explain their “heresy” that Patrick was not Irish. Turns out, they had heard me give a Bible lesson on Saint Patrick a few years ago, and they remembered that–contrary to popular belief–Patrick was not born in Ireland. He was born around 387 AD in Britain, which was then a Roman colony. (Historians cannot pinpoint his exact birthplace. Some claim modern-day England, while others claim Scotland.)
(As a teacher, I love asking questions about popularly-held myths and then watching the surprised looks at the truth dawns on them.)
After that discussion, one fellow remarked: “I bet 99% of Americans don’t know that Patrick wasn’t born in Ireland.” That then led to this topic: why is there so much misinformation and lack of knowledge about so many issues?
In the case of Saint Patrick’s Day, we can see why say, CNN, Hollywood, or the Washington Post are not reporting the facts about Patrick’s life. However, since Saint Patrick’s Day at its core is a Christian holiday, why don’t churches do a better job teaching these stories?
In the case of our Sunday School class, most members have attended church most or all of their lives, but the news that Patrick was not from Ireland came as a shock. They had never been taught.
I explained that, even as a history major at William and Mary and a licensed history teacher since 1987, I had not learned the true story of Patrick’s life until the early 2000s, when I heard a BreakPoint Daily Commentary with the late Chuck Colson.
So, what is the real scoop?
March 17th is Saint Patrick’s Day. For many, it is a chance to wear something green, eat a green donut, or maybe swill a green beer. But do you know the history behind Saint Patrick’s Day, and why we celebrate it on March 17th? In fact, it is a Christian holiday with a fascinating story.
Patrick grew up in a Christian home in Britain, but initially the faith was not very important to him. However, in his mid-teen years, marauding Irish raiders kidnapped him and sent him to Ireland to be a slave to watch sheep. (Yes, Patrick was a white slave.)
Being a shepherd must be a boring, cold, lonely job under the best of circumstances, but one can only imagine the pain of doing that with homesickness, culture shock, plus the heartbreak of kidnapping and slavery.
During the five or six years he was a slave watching his flocks, he had lots of time to think and pray. As often happens to people, the hardship drove him to the God he had learned about as a child.
In his memoirs “The Confession,” Patrick later wrote that he “prayed hundreds of times each day and night.” Eventually, he sensed a dream or vision from God telling him to run away and go back home. Despite the dangers, Patrick obeyed the vision, ran away, and eventually found a ship and got back home.
Home! All was peaceful, back in his familiar environment…for a while….
But a few years later, Patrick received a new vision: Go back to Ireland and tell the people about God.
Clearly, returning to the violent, pagan Ireland as a former runaway slave carried horrific risks, but Patrick went. And in a twist with enormous historic implications, the Irish did not kill Patrick, but rather received his message enthusiastically. For most of the 1,600-some years since then, Ireland has been profoundly influenced by Catholic Christianity.
And the implications reach far beyond the shores of Ireland. In his book “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” Thomas Cahill points out that Irish monks and scribes kept scholarship alive behind stone monastery walls while most of the rest of Europe was plunged into the darkness and disorder we call the Middle Ages.
Patrick died on March 17, 461. That later became Patrick’s “feast day,” and so is now Saint Patrick’s Day.
As the US in particular and the West in general are rapidly abandoning our cultural Christian roots and plunging into chaos, Patrick offers more than just an interesting story. He shows the power of the Christian gospel to not only change a person, but also an entire society and civilization.
Want to know more about Saint Patrick, his life, and his holiday? Read my blog post.
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– Scott Dreyer