Solemnity of St Patrick, March 17
Year A: Ecclesiasticus 39:6-10; Psalm 115; 2Timothy 4:1-8; Matthew 13:24-32
Patrick Breen, O.Carm.
Our first reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus is quite appropriate for the feast day of St Patrick. Throughout his first forced stay on the island as a shepherd, Patrick had many a long and lonely hour on windswept mountain and hill and which he passed pondering ‘the Lord’s hidden mysteries’ (Ecclesiasticus 39:7). As a result he was ‘filled with the spirit of understanding’ (39:6) and today many still praise that understanding particularly his explanation of the Holy Trinity for which he is probably best known. Like our Lord in his own teaching, Patrick used something the people were familiar with and so the shamrock came to symbolise the Trinity of God and today is a symbol of so many organisations, agencies and companies associated with the country. As in the reading, Patrick’s memory has not disappeared and nations still celebrate his wisdom and his teaching (cf 39:9-10) especially where communities of Irish missionaries established the faith.
The second reading is also quite appropriate for today and the last paragraph could have been Patrick’s own words, his final legacy which echoes down the centuries: ‘I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith’ (2Timothy 4:7). In his life Patrick fought two important fights, one of which he lost and the other he won. The first fight was to get away from this island having been brought here against his will and this he managed to do for a while. But eventually the call of the Irish and the will of God brought him back and so began his second and greatest fight. That fight was to spread the Christian faith and, while he wasn’t the first to bring Christianity to the island, he was the most successful and that became a key part of our identity for centuries and led this land to be known, for a time, as the ‘island of saints and scholars’.
And yet I can’t help but draw a connection between today’s commemoration and Christmas Day. As the years pass the significance of Jesus Christ is less and less a part of the celebration of Christmas just as the message and true legacy of Patrick is less and less a feature of this feast. Like it or not, Patrick wasn’t Irish but was from Roman controlled-Britain and so simply celebrating Irishness doesn’t quite do him justice. When we celebrate a person’s memory we celebrate their achievements and their legacy and while this foreigner united the Irish he did so under the Christian faith. The second reading contains another piece which is also apt for the Ireland of today: ‘The time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect for themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes; and then, instead of listening to the truth, they will turn to myths’ (4:3-4).
So what is the truth that Patrick gave up his freedom for? What is the legacy that Patrick left behind? In a nutshell Patrick gave us a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the means to get to know the One, True God and Lord of Creation. He gave us the means to move from being the darnel of the gospel, a weed that is useless, to being the wheat that feeds, nourishes and gives life. Patrick brought us true freedom which comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ, a freedom which means that nothing and no one can have a negative hold over us because our true homeland is in heaven and it is to that homeland that we travel. Patrick opened to us the way to become the sons and daughters of God and showed us that we are greatly loved. To celebrate the memory of Patrick means to celebrate the faith and freedom which he brought to us. Were Patrick to return today he might be well impressed by the effort that goes into celebrating his memorial with parades and pageants and a festival weekend. But would he find the core of his life’s work clearly visible as he walked the land once again? Perhaps he would be disappointed because he didn’t bring us a faith which consisted of membership on paper only but a faith which is alive and active, a faith which forms the other aspects of our lives, a faith which sees us worship God daily. Perhaps Patrick would look at our country and see in it the second parable of today’s gospel and so roll up his sleeves and go back to work.
Is faith completely lost in our country? Not at all and our presence here today is testament to that and so the mustard seed of the gospel is still present and waiting to grow and revitalise like so many plants coming back into bloom after the winter. St Patrick’s Day is held at what is often a damp and chilly time of the year but also at what is usually the Season of Lent and that is a good thing because Lent calls on us to refocus our minds and our efforts, challenges us to become better people as we recall the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ so that each one of us might have eternal life. St Patrick’s Day is an annual reminder to us not simply that we are Irish but a reminder of our heritage, a reminder of the life and death of so many people over the centuries so that the Christian faith might be preserved for us and in us. Today is a reminder that one of the key characteristics of the Irish is their Christianity and which has had no small impact on the Church in the wider world.
To do justice to the saint’s memory is to rededicate ourselves to the faith which Patrick of Britain brought to this land. That is not to say that we can’t celebrate Irish culture but that celebrating Irish culture also means celebrating our Christian faith and heritage which is part of culture and so once again nurture and grow the seed of faith in each of us and in our people. St Patrick’s Day is the annual call to the people of Ireland by the man himself to return to God and to say each day with conviction the words of St Patrick’s Breastplate:
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.