Every year on March 17 millions of people around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with parades, parties, and the color green. But who was the man who inspired these traditions and why do we still celebrate him today?
Who Was St. Patrick?
Although there is scholarly disagreement on the exact date (and even the year) of St. Patrick’s birth, the traditionally accepted consensus is that St. Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in the Roman colony of Britain around AD 387 to middle-class Christian parents. At the age of 16, Maewyn was kidnapped by pirates and carried off to Ireland where he was sold into slavery. In Ireland he learned a new language and the culture of the Druids. At that time in Irish history, Ireland was a dark nation where the religion of the Druids reigned. This pagan religion involved worshipping nature, violence, and even human sacrifice.
When young Maewyn was kidnapped, he was not a Christian but was essentially an atheist. However, his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest, so Maewyn had heard the truth as a boy. During the long, cold, and lonely days and nights caring for his master’s sheep in the Irish countryside, Maewyn began to pray. Soon he had developed a relationship with the triune God of Scripture and was praying nearly 100 times during the day and night. After six years of slavery, he claims he was told in a vision that a ship was ready to take him home. He hiked 200 miles to the coast, boarded a ship, and eventually returned home.
Back in Britain, Maewyn claimed to have received a vision in which he heard the people of Ireland saying, “We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.” After studying for the priesthood, being ordained a bishop, and changing his name to Patrick, he headed back to the nation of his slavery to be a missionary among the Irish.
St. Patrick was tremendously effective and saw many pagans turn to put their faith in Christ.
St. Patrick was tremendously effective and saw many pagans turn to put their faith in Christ. Despite how his extant writings testify to how much he missed his homeland, he chose to live and serve among the Irish he grew to love. He even suffered imprisonment and persecution at the hands of the Druids. But his dedicated and tireless evangelistic efforts, according to tradition, resulted in his baptizing 120,000 new believers and building over 300 churches in Ireland. He served and worked among the people for 30 years before he died on March 17, 461, and was buried in Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Day
We now celebrate St. Patrick’s Day each year on the anniversary of his death, March 17. Originally, this was strictly an Irish feast day in the Roman Catholic Church to commemorate the patron saint of Ireland. However, Irish immigrants coming to North America brought the tradition with them, and it is now widely celebrated each year. Sadly, few people remember the devoted missionary who stands behind the St. Patrick’s Day tradition.
Symbols of St. Patrick
There are a myriad of symbols that we associate with St. Patrick’s Day today, including the color green, leprechauns, pots of gold, and corned beef. All of these things arose long after St. Patrick died and have nothing to do with the courageous missionary. Indeed, most are American additions to the Irish holiday.
However, there is one St. Patrick’s Day symbol that is actually associated with St. Patrick. According to tradition, St. Patrick used a shamrock (clover) to teach the concept of a Trinitarian God to the Irish. Each of the three lobes of the shamrock represents one member of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Of course, no analogy is perfect, but one can easily relate how three nearly identical leaves make up one shamrock.
How Should Christians Respond to St. Patrick’s Day?
Just like St. Patrick preached to a pagan audience, so do Christians today preach to largely pagan audiences. In the West, we can no longer take for granted, like we used to, that people have background knowledge of the Bible or that they trust what the Bible says. When we say “God,” we can’t even assume people are thinking about the biblical God! Essentially, we live in a nation of pagans. They need to be reached with the gospel, just like the Irish Druids that St. Patrick reached.
Just like St. Patrick took something that was common to the culture, the shamrock, and used it as a springboard to present the truth about the one, true God, so can we take what is common to our culture and use it to share the gospel with others. Paul did this very thing in Greece when he used the “altar to the unknown god” to proclaim who that God was! Creation evangelism provides the perfect opportunity for us to do just that. We can take something common to our culture, like clothing, law, or education, and use it to present the gospel from the very beginning.
For example, why wear clothes? It goes back to sin and shame and the need for a Savior in Genesis 3. Why do laws exist? Because God is the ultimate lawgiver, and we need laws to rein in our sin nature ever since sin came into the world in Genesis 3. Why should we educate our youth? It is a biblical mandate (Deuteronomy 11:19; Proverbs 22:6), so they too can learn the truth of God’s Word that leads to the gospel. In a secular culture, why wear clothes if we are just animals? Why have laws when nothing really matters? And why purpose ourselves to educate our kids that nothing has a purpose?
Today, our pagan culture largely doesn’t understand what sin is or why we need a Savior.
Today, our pagan culture largely doesn’t understand what sin is or why we need a Savior. We have to take them back to the beginning, in Genesis, to show them who God is, why there is such a thing as sin, and why we need a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
This St. Patrick’s Day, use the true story of St. Patrick as a springboard for presenting the life-changing message of Jesus Christ with others.