Monday, March 01, 2010

Patrick of Ireland

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
March 2010
Curate’s Corner

Patrick of Ireland

One of the great gifts and distinctive features of Grace Church is that we have at least one public worship service every day of the year. As I have heard Lauren mention many times, these daily services “bathe” our church in prayer. Day after day we give thanks to God for the many blessings of our lives. We pray for people throughout the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church and Grace Church. Each day we pray for all of those on our parish prayer list – lifting up to God some people we may know well and the many more who are unknown, yet all are in some kind of spiritual or physical need.

Another major benefit of the daily services is that we honor the holy men and women of Christian history who are commemorated on our church calendar. The guidelines for inclusion on our church calendar adopted by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church call for people who demonstrate heroic faith, love, goodness of life, joyousness, service to others for Christ’s sake, and devotion. I remember in seminary a professor once said that we should “become friends” with these faithful people who can serve as inspiring examples for us as we try to live Christian lives in our own time and place.

Our calendar includes both relatively obscure figures from the Episcopal and Anglican past and those who are well-known throughout the Christian world. In the month of March, for example, we honor the obscure Cuthbert (7th Century bishop of Lindisfarne) and also Patrick, the famed 5th Century bishop and missionary of Ireland. There’s just one problem – during Lent we refrain from celebrating the lesser feasts. That means that this year Cuthbert, Patrick and the other holy people commemorated in March will not get their due. Inspired by some Irish pride, I thought I would use part of my space here to write a little about Patrick, a holy and brave man whose name, unfortunately, has become closely associated with the over-consumption of alcohol on and around March 17, the day the Church sets aside in his honor.

Although Patrick wrote an autobiography, Confessions, considered fairly reliable by most scholars, the details of his life remain sketchy and blanketed by charming mythology. Patrick was born in Britain (not Ireland!) around the year 390. His father was both a deacon and a member of the local town council. When Patrick was 16 he was captured by pirates and held in captivity for six years in Ireland where he worked as a shepherd. When he was about 21, Patrick made his escape back home to Britain – a daring and risky adventure that he claimed was inspired and sustained by God.

Patrick was unsurprisingly changed by such difficult and profound experiences. He now took his Christian faith very seriously and was ordained a priest and also apparently a bishop. After his time as a slave in Ireland, it is remarkable that Patrick chose to return to Ireland as a free man, determined to convert the Irish to Christianity. He spent the rest of his life spreading the Good News to all, from chieftains to peasants. Like many missionaries before and since, he built on the local pagan religions, converting their sacred sites to Christian shrines. He ordained men to the priesthood and established convents and monasteries. Patrick died probably in 461.

The Gospel appointed for the Feast of St. Patrick is Matthew 28:16-20, known as “the great commission.” At the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel the Risen Jesus appears to the eleven disciples and presents them with what came to be seen as the mission of the Church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

A millennium and a half ago Patrick heard that call and devoted his life to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus in the land that had once held him captive. We live in a very different time and place, yet we are also challenged to find ways to spread the word about Jesus. For a few of us maybe that means imitating Patrick and going off to a strange land. Most of us, however, have the perhaps more difficult job of spreading the Gospel through our deeds and words right here in Morris County.

Wherever we live our Christian lives we can have that same confidence of Patrick that Christ is with us always. This confidence is captured beautifully in St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a hymn attributed to the great missionary of Ireland:

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.