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Monday, March 12, 2018

Patrick of Ireland

Patrick was 12 years old. One day he and his buddies decided to go swimming instead of going to school.  It was about the year 397, a long time ago. And Patrick lived in Britain.  At that time, the Roman Empire, which had protected everyone, no longer did it very well. What Patrick and his friends didn’t know was that some fierce Irish Celts were waiting to capture them and take them across the ocean to Ireland as slaves.  And so Patrick and friends just disappeared and their parents were heartbroken.  As a slave Patrick had only a gunny sack to wear, hardly anything to eat and he had to watch and herd about a hundred head of cattle in the pastures.  He had to herd the cows, day and night, winter snows, summer heat, rain, come what may, Patrick was out in it.  If he lost calves, he was beaten. What do you do when you are in such an impossible situation?  Patrick began to pray.  He didn’t just pray about what he wanted, but he began to talk to God as if God was his last friend on earth.  He would pray hundreds of times a day telling about all his troubles and just trying to remember the Christian faith he had been taught.  The Irish weren’t Christians.  They worshiped a sun god and thought that spirits were everywhere in plants and rocks and animals. So everything in nature was important to the Irish. Patrick knew he was going to be a slave for the rest of his life. He learned his job and all about the land he now found himself in, a green country of clover (shamrock) pastures and lots of rain.  Patrick had truly become Irish by the end of 10 long years.  He talked to God continually and had dreams.  Finally one night, a dream came with orders to leave. If he was caught he’d be killed!  Yet Patrick, not knowing where he was, just started walking, walking, walking.  It was amazing that no one saw or bothered to stop this runaway slave! Eventually he walked to the seashore.   Patrick saw a merchant ship and went to talk to the sailors, telling them plainly that he was from Breton and wanted to go home.  Sure, said the crafty sailors, thinking they would just sell him again when they got to another place.  So they invited Patrick aboard and set sail first for the coast of Gaul (France), to trade a few things. 

     When they got to Gaul, it was disaster everywhere.  The seaport had been burned to the ground and no longer existed. There were no people or animals.  It was the year 408 AD and the previous winter had been a record cold one.  The Rhine River rarely freezes but it had frozen so solidly that thousands of barbarian Germans could walk across the river.  Over a quarter million Germans swarmed into Gaul. They were fiercer than the even the Irish.  They stole everything they could from the towns, ate the food and killed most of the people.  This is what the surprised sailors now saw.  After finding nothing to eat, the starving sailors taunted Patrick about praying to his Christian God.  Patrick looked them squarely in the eye and said that if they would pray with him, then God would provide for them as He had done so many times before.  So the hungry sailors tried a moment of faith, and in the midst of the prayer, a herd of hogs came running over the hill and down the road straight at the men.  A feast.  Hogs were killed and they held a barbecue. At that point the sailors began to say maybe they should take this slave kid home since he had some sort of power they were scared about.

    Home in Britain, Patrick struggled to catch up in school and didn’t do very well.  He became a priest but wasn’t very good at just holding church on Sunday.  Still he prayed tirelessly and had dreams.  One night an old Irish friend appeared in his dream begging him to come to Ireland again.  If he did that, would they just capture him and make him a slave again?  Despite his fears, Patrick wanted to share the good news about Jesus and all it meant with the Irish.  So he left for Ireland.  He walked right into the head king’s judgment hall and told his story boldly, bravely.  Why didn’t the King of Limerick have him arrested and enslaved?  In a warrior society, bravery, a good storyteller, generosity, and loyalty were the signs of a great fighter.  Here was Patrick coming fearlessly and ardently wanting to give the king the secret to all of life.  Now that’s generous! He told a fascinating story of how God led him to freedom. Now he was here, more loyal to Ireland than to Breton his home.  That was really impressive to the Irish Celts.  Right there and then, the king decided that he wanted to be a Christian like Pat.  Patrick went out with the king’s blessing and traveled to his former owner, who was so astonished by Patrick that it moved him to praise Patrick’s God and ask if he could have such faith.  From one end of Ireland to the other, Patrick traveled preaching the message and converting the Irish.  They asked a lot of questions.  How could there be one God yet 3 persons?  Patrick reached down and pulled up a shamrock leaf.  See, there are three leaves but one shamrock leaf, he told them, and all of the pastures of Ireland tell us this.  How could Mary have been a virgin and yet have given birth?  It was God’s miracle, just like a cow having twins, Patrick said.  But was this God of Christ as important as the old Irish Sun god, whose symbol was a ring? Patrick drew a cross overlapping the ring and told them that God in heaven is both the creator (ring) and the One who sent his Son to die because he loved them so much (cross). Surely, such love is the greatest of all things. Patrick also taught them how to read and farm as well.  And so a strange thing happened.  As the Roman Empire collapsed and barbarians took over, Ireland became more civilized.  By the time Patrick died, the Irish, had built churches and monasteries around the country and were copying not only the Bible but also other old books eagerly.  Much of the classic Roman literature we have today comes from books saved and recopied by the Irish.  Some decided they wanted to be like Patrick and take the gospel message back to the continent and convert those bloodthirsty German barbarians.  Over about 200 years this happened as well. 

            Patrick of Ireland was the first Christian missionary after Paul. The one-time slave brought civilization and salvation to the Celts who in turn saved much of Europe in the Dark Ages. Green, the national color of Ireland, is the color of new life in Jesus Christ, Patrick told them.  That is why we wear green on St. Patrick’s Day.

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