The story of Saint Patrick is one of the most beguiling and illustrative tales in the Christian lexicon. As a young boy he was captured by raiders and taken to Ireland in the chains of slavery. While there he dreamed of freedom and found himself growing closer to God as his strength and shield in captivity.
“One night, after six years of captivity, a voice spoke to Patrick in a dream, saying, ‘You are going home. Look! Your ship is ready!’ The voice directed him to flee for his freedom the next morning. He awakened before daybreak, walked to a seacoast, saw the ship, and negotiated his way on board” (George G. Hunter, III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 14).
Returning to England, Patrick became a priest and served for many years as a parish pastor. “At the age of forty-eight – already past a man’s life expectancy in the fifth century – Patrick experienced another dream that was to change his life again. An angel named Victor approached him with letters from his former captors in Ireland. As he read one of the letters, he ‘imagined in that moment that [he] heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut . . . and they cried out, as with one voice, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”’”
When Patrick awakened the next morning, he interpreted the dream as his “Macedonian Call” to take Christianity’s gospel to the Celtic peoples of Ireland (George G. Hunter, III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 15).
I write this St. Patrick’s Day not to honor all things green but rather because his life illustrates a hard truth lived. Consider well the truth of his life’s witness. Patrick went back to the land of his enslavement to share the gospel. He reached out in love through the cross of Christ to those he had every reason to hate.
The hard truth of the gospel is that God’s love in Jesus Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is not just for those worthy of love. I have to remember this when I watch news of ISIS or the racist chanting of a stupid fraternity. The good news of God’s love, forgiveness and sacrifice is not just for good people. The cross is for those we consider to be unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.
A seminal segment from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
When I reflect on the truth of this teaching, I find myself wanting to argue with God. I want to say, “Lord, do you know what these people are like!? Do you seriously mean that you died for them? Do you mean that you really love them? Not only that, but Lord you can’t mean that we are supposed to love them as well?” I find myself at one with Soren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish theologian of the 19th century, who, in sardonic jest, once suggested that they gather up all the Bibles in Denmark; take them up to a high mountain and throw them off. We ought, he suggested, just tell God, “Lord this is too hard!” Yet clearly here it is from the mouth of Jesus himself no less. The cross connection is for the unloved, unlovely, and the unlovable!
In his beautiful one line summary of the gospel, John tells us “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16). God’s love was and is for the whole world not just parts of it. The cross connection is God’s love in and through Christ for the unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.
I have quoted before the late Professor George Macleod (Princeton Theological School) who put it this way: “I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died. And that is what He died about. And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmanship should be about.”
As we pause in our routine of activities to duly celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I invite us to embrace the truth behind the legend of St. Patrick. This man really was a Christian saint. He has much to teach and when we lay his personal witness of life and faith alongside the life and teaching of Jesus, the cross comes into focus.
First, when we reach out through the cross, Christ reaches out with us.
Second, the hard truth St. Patrick lived in following Jesus, the way of the cross, transforms us. God’s power, the power of true unconquerable love flows in and through us. In loving even the enemy, we ourselves become more loveable. And amazingly, so does the so-called enemy.
Third, the cross transforms the unloved, unlovely, and unlovable. St. Patrick understood and lived this hard yet magnificent saving truth.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer
(Ephesians 6:14 … “put on the breastplate of righteousness”)
I bind unto myself today The strong Name of the Trinity, By invocation of the same, The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this day to me forever. By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation; His baptism in the Jordan River; His death on Cross for my salvation; His bursting from the spiced tomb; His riding up the heavenly way; His coming at the day of doom;* I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power Of the great love of the cherubim; The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour, The service of the seraphim, Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word, The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls, All good deeds done unto the Lord, And purity of virgin souls.
I bind unto myself today The virtues of the starlit heaven, The glorious sun’s life-giving ray, The whiteness of the moon at even, The flashing of the lightning free, The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, The stable earth, the deep salt sea, Around the old eternal rocks.
I bind unto myself today The power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to hearken to my need. The wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward, The word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.
Against the demon snares of sin, The vice that gives temptation force, The natural lusts that war within, The hostile men that mar my course; Or few or many, far or nigh, In every place and in all hours, Against their fierce hostility, I bind to me these holy powers.
Against all Satan’s spells and wiles, Against false words of heresy, Against the knowledge that defiles, Against the heart’s idolatry, Against the wizard’s evil craft, Against the death wound and the burning, The choking wave and the poisoned shaft, Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name, The strong Name of the Trinity; By invocation of the same. The Three in One, and One in Three, Of Whom all nature hath creation, Eternal Father, Spirit, Word: Praise to the Lord of my salvation, Salvation is of Christ the Lord.
* Note: “day of doom” is an Old English term meaning “Day of Judgment.”
(Taken from http://www.prayerfoundation.org/st_patricks_breastplate_prayer.htm)