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Remembering the real St. Patrick

POSTED: March 13, 2014 7:10 p.m.

Can’t you imagine the following conversation with a local youngster?

“So, Johnny, do you know why we celebrate St. Patrick?”

“Sure,” Johnny replies, “St. Patrick was a Christian who lived a long time ago in Ireland.”

“That’s right, Johnny, but do you know what he did that we remember every March 17?”

Johnny thinks, then his face brightens up and he says enthusiastically, “Well, St. Patrick loved to have a party. And he would always invite 300,000 of his closest friends every March 17. Then, they would all walk around their town in Ireland, make the water green, drink a lot of beer, throw up on each other, and spend the night in jail for public urination.”

Can you blame Johnny?

I imagine the real St. Patrick might not recognize his life in the way we celebrate it, except for the few churches that have a worship service to commemorate him.

Who was the real St. Patrick? Well, we do not have exact dates for him, though it is generally agreed upon that Patrick lived in the latter part of the fifth century. Some theologians believe that many of the accounts attributed to St. Patrick were actually events in the life of another Irish bishop, Palladius, who preceded St. Patrick.

It is often difficult to discern what accounts about St. Patrick are legendary or folklore, and what accounts are indeed factual. The two stories that seem to be legendary are those regarding St. Patrick’s banishing of snakes from Ireland and the miracles of his walking stick.

St. Patrick is said to have driven all the island’s snakes into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast. However, most scholars agree that post-glacial Ireland never had snakes. His ash-wood walking stick is said to have been thrust into the ground by Patrick while evangelizing at Aspatria, whereupon it then took root and grew into a tree. Again, these accounts appear to be more folklore than anything else.

What Christians would certainly appreciate about St. Patrick is his teaching of the Trinity – always problematic when discussing Christianity with people outside the faith. There are consistent accounts describing St. Patrick’s use of a shamrock to draw an analogy between this three-leaf plant and the Trinity. The shamrock was held up by St. Patrick as an illustration to crowds of the mystery of three persons in one God.

Yet it seems that Christians (and non-Christians) have always had trouble remembering the life of this saint on his day. The Rev. Dr. Caleb Threlkeld, an 18th century cleric and botanist, wrote the following about the custom of wearing a shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day:

“This plant is worn by the people in their hats upon the 17th day of March yearly, which is called St. Patrick’s Day. It being a current tradition, that by this three-leafed grass, he emblematically set forth to them the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. However that be, when they wet their shamrock, they often commit excess in liquor, which is not a right keeping of a day to the Lord; error generally leading to debauchery.”

Well, on second thought, maybe Savannah’s got the tradition right.

The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.

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