A Brief Theology of St. Patrick’s Day
The lives of the saints are full of stories passed down for generations, stories so polished that the lines between history and legend are blessedly impossible to find. And so in honor of St. Patrick’s Day this year, three ancient, delightful stories – but first, a little background.
St. Patrick is one of the patron saints of Ireland. He died just over fifteen hundred years ago, reportedly on March 17, and he is closely associated with the growth of Christianity throughout the Emerald Isle, the rise of Celtic styles of Christianity, and of course that famous shamrock (more on that in a bit).
He first encountered Ireland as a slave. Patrick was born in the Roman imperial province of Britannia (today known as Great Britain), and as a youth he was captured by Irish raiders and forced to serve as a sheep herder. After six years of captivity, he escaped and made his way home – only to return to Ireland years later as a bishop and missionary.
St. Patrick’s Walking Stick
Patrick was an itinerant preacher, and it is said that he carried a walking stick made of ash wood. In his travels between Britannia and Ireland, whenever he would stop to preach, he would plant the stick beside him, upright in the ground. At the English site now called Aspatria (“ash of Patrick”), he preached so patiently, the story goes, that when at last he finished, he couldn’t remove the stick. It had sprouted roots, you see. It was already on its way to becoming a tree.
St. Patrick’s Bell
In his life as an enslaved sheep herder, St. Patrick was quite familiar with the sheep bell: a simple bell of hammered iron with a small handle on top. As a bishop, that bell continued to have great meaning for him, perhaps because it reminded him of his youth, or of the ringing good news of the gospel, or of his ongoing role as a pastor (from the Latin pastorem, “shepherd”). Whatever the reason, he was laid to rest with one resting on his breast: the dead shepherd, buried with his bell.
Sometime later, the bell was removed from the tomb as a precious relic. And in the eleventh century, artists intricately covered the bell in bronze, gems, and Celtic designs of crosses and birds – not to make the bell appear more holy, it is said, but rather to shield the eyes of onlookers from the brilliant holiness of the iron original. Now on display in Dublin’s National Museum, St. Patrick’s Bell is considered one of Ireland’s signature treasures.
St. Patrick’s Shamrock
The Christian idea of the divine Trinity – God’s simultaneous threeness and oneness as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit – has always been a great challenge for preachers to grasp and explain. St. Patrick did it this way: he looked around, and then plucked a shamrock from the ground at his feet. Three leaves, he said, and yet one stem, one life. Add to that the shamrock’s vibrant shade of green, the color of growth and vitality – and while it’s easy to imagine a more technical, lengthy explanation of the Trinity, it’s hard to imagine a better one.
God of walking sticks and bells, little shamrocks and big ideas, thank you for Patrick. Let us remember him not only for his sake, but most of all for your sake, and for the sake of your good and brilliant green creation. Grant us the patience to trust the work you have given us, so that it might take root, grow, and bloom. Grant us the dignity and clarity of a simple, iron bell. Grant us new eyes to see your creation afresh, out on the horizon but also down around our feet, where great mysteries dwell nearby, hidden in the grass. For we are all your sheep, and you, our good shepherd. In Jesus’ name, Amen.