This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. — 1 John 5:4, 5
No doubt you associate March 17th each year as St. Patrick’s Day, as I do. For as long as I can remember, the date set aside to celebrate St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, has been a day dedicated to the wearing of green, to decorating with leprechauns and shamrocks, and to holding parades in locations where many Irish have settled. For me it also means celebrating my Irish roots.
But little did I know that March 17th is also a holiday because of a military victory. We’ll get back to St. Patrick—because that’s a very important story—but so is Evacuation Day. If I’ve done my homework right, Evacuation Day was the day in the Boston area when British General Sir William Howe led his troops onto their ships and left the city for Nova Scotia. The Continental Army, under the new command of General George Washington, strategically occupied Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston Harbor. Fortifications were built with artillery equipment captured at Fort Ticonderoga, and the British realized that their position within Boston was indefensible. Fearing a defeat similar to Bunker Hill, General Howe decided to evacuate, ending an 11 month siege of the city. Boston was never attacked again by the British, and this can be considered Washington’s first victory of the Revolutionary War. The password for the day in General Washington’s Continental Army encampment was “Saint Patrick,” and March 17th was declared an official holiday for Suffolk County, Massachusetts in the early 1900s.
With the story of St. Patrick we find another victory, but of a different sort. His is the story of victory over bitterness, victory over the lies of a pagan culture, and, as Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization would even say, the victory over illiteracy and ignorance which would preserve writings so important to us today, including the Bible.
Patrick was a young man of sixteen years when kidnapped from his home in England around 400 A.D. and taken to Ireland. There he was sold to a chieftain who forced Patrick to tend his sheep. It was during this captivity that Patrick remembered his Christian upbringing, which he had formerly rejected. As he wrote in his Confessions, “I would pray constantly during the daylight hours” and “the love of God . . . surrounded me more and more.” His understanding and love for God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit grew during these lonely years of survival in the cold, rain, and snow. His writings do not show bitterness, however, because he used his time to grow in new love and faith. After six years as a slave-shepherd Patrick escaped and returned to his home in England, a changed man.
Feeling called to return to Ireland and proclaim the Gospel to the pagan and barbaric culture which he had left, Patrick began to study and prepare. Eventually he was ordained as a priest, and then a bishop. When he did return, he brought new hope to the land where he had been held captive, all because of his bold and faithful proclamation of Jesus Christ as Savior of the world. He even used the shamrock to explain the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He served in Ireland for 29 years, baptizing thousands and planting hundreds of churches. Besides individual lives redeemed, their new Christian faith gave the Irish people a revived love of learning—which then fostered literacy. The Irish monks were instrumental in copying books, including the Bible, which were in danger of being looted and destroyed during the final days of the Roman Empire as it crumbled.
This is a quick summary, no doubt, and there is much to appreciate in the legacy of St. Patrick. Although accounts of his biography differ in details, there seems to be little disagreement as to his passion to evangelize the people of Ireland because of his love for them and his love for our Lord. I am particularly inspired by his deep prayer life, and am touched by this writing called “The Breastplate,” attributed to St. Patrick:
“Christ be 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 inquired, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”
March 17th is a day to celebrate victory, whether Evacuation Day or St. Patrick’s Day. The ultimate victory is through Jesus Christ, and as Christians we celebrate His life in us every day of the year. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:56-58)
Apostle to the Irish: The Real Saint Patrick by Charles Colson
Patricius: The True Story of St. Patrick by David Kithcart
Who Was the Real St. Patrick? by Deacon Keith A. Fournier
Saint Patrick from Wikipedia
Evacuation Day from Wikipedia
Service of the Scribes: How the Irish Saved Civilization, March 16, 1998 of Prison Fellowship