I was wandering back from Center City this afternoon and walked into the surprising green horde descending on various bars and frats from the colleges in University City for St. Patrick’s Day Eve. One young woman shouted drunkenly into her phone as I passed, “Why did you call at 4? Everything started at noon!” As I told my Instagram crew, I began to feel a bit naïve when I saw a sign on the door near 30th St. that said this bar was a stop for the “Erin Express.” Then I got to Drexel and saw the bus! (below) That was right after I began noticing what the green T-shirts said. One young woman’s was “Let’s get fucked up!” One young man’s was “Shake your shamrocks.”
So I had to put at least a tiny antidote into the sea of Irish nationalism and Patrick desecration in my neighborhood. I offer you a version of a message I delivered after my wonderful pilgrimage to Ireland and beyond over ten years ago now. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Light a fire!
Patrick on the Hill of Tara
When we were in Dublin that summer, we took a very interesting history walk, lead by a young college woman studying history at the famous Trinity College. We learned, among other things that “Dub-lin” means “black-pool” in some Viking language, the Vikings being among the many people who have oppressed the Irish, not to diminish the oppression of the British, which our guide made sure we heard about. Being oppressed was the story the guide had to tell over and over, and she seemed to have sort of a chip on her shoulder about it.
She also seemed to have a special interest in educating the Americans in her group, since there are more Irish people in the U.S. than in Ireland, but nobody seems to know anything about them. Elementary school children are filled with nonsense about the Irish: they find leprechauns, they chase pots of gold, they find three-leaf clovers, they are superstitious, they dance jigs and they tell tall tales (well, that last one is probably true). The advanced kids know that they often march in parades around March 17, which is St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the day you have to wear green or you might get pinched. The first St. Patrick’s Day parades weren’t in Ireland, they were in the U.S. to demonstrate Irish political power. The first one in Philly was in 1771.
My guide did not take kindly to the fact that Irish people are more known for drinking Guinness and eating Lucky Charms cereal than for James Joyce or even the real St. Patrick. She sneered at Americans, well known for living off the candy of sound bites and sixty second ads rather than chewing on the complexity of a long narrative.
So that means my subject might be a little challenging if you are an American. It is a long narrative. It is much easier to pile into Fado or Plough and the Stars and have a drinking party on St. Patrick’s Day than to understand the 4th century believer called Patrick. More fundamental to my purpose, it is easier to have a thin veneer of Christianity, a little fragrance of faith — a spritz, than to follow Jesus like Patrick.
What I have to say concerns the story of Jesus getting to the Irish people and changing the course of their history. It is a great story. But the reason I want to tell parts of it is that it has a lot to say about how the history of each of us and how our present day can and should change, as well.
Like my Dublin guide seemed disappointed in her patrons, I think quite a few of us feel a little disappointed when we give people a tour of our faith. We think people have the wrong impression of us Christians, like my guide thought people misunderstood the Irish. We feel kind of oppressed by how people think and how they don’t care to understand us or Jesus. If you sometimes feel like you are surrounded by resistant oppressors, then Patrick’s story may give you some encouragement and instruction. He kind of came from nowhere, was something of a nobody, but he faced up to the powers of his day and he made a big difference.
Patrick is the slave who came back to convert his masters
One of the most phenomenal things about Patrick that most elementary school students are not taught is that he was a slave who came back to convert his masters.
Patrick was born on the west coast of what is now Scotland or Wales. He was probably the son of an old Roman-connected aristocratic family who were nominally Christian. When he was about sixteen, he was captured and carried off as a slave to serve one of the many kings controlling sections of Ireland, probably in the north around what is now County Mayo. Patrick worked as a herdsman for six years.
Fortunately, we have a couple of things Patrick wrote; and he writes that his faith grew in captivity. He began to pray the prayers he had learned as a child many times a day. One day he had a vision and heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home. Later on he heard that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he travelled to a port, two hundred miles away, where he found a ship. The ship apparently went to France, first, where Patrick studied to be a pastor. After various adventures, he returned home to his family, now in his early twenties.
Patrick recounts that he had another vision many years after returning home:
“I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”
He decided to go back to Ireland and give his life to bring Jesus to his former masters. This is an important thing to note: the revelation of Jesus comes with Patrick from out of nowhere; it comes from the slaves. This might encourage people like us who sometimes feel like the opposition to Jesus is strong and our message has no power. I think Patrick should be especially encouraging to people who work in the cubicles, and feel enslaved to the bosses. Your hiddenness is OK. If there is any fire where the powers that be don’t expect it to be, it will be noticed, eventually.
By the time Patrick died, thousands of people had been baptized and Ireland was on its way to being a predominantly Christian place. Even today it is among the most faith-driven places in Europe, which has, by-and-large, gone post-Christian.
Patrick-like people can’t stay hidden under a sea of Guinness
We have to appreciate the hiddenness of the truth about Jesus. Jesus himself only expected people to hear who had ears to hear. He did not work hard to get world fame or more hits on his website. God came as a baby to a poor family. John says that Jesus was not even recognized by his own countrymen who were looking for the Messiah! Patrick went back to Ireland with this same sense of humility. He seemed to think, “The message is hidden in the creation and I will reveal it. But at the same time, I am also a creature, so it may be hidden in me.” Paul writes about it this way:
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:
“No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.
Patrick had spent his formative years out on a hill in Ireland. When he walked back in to the village to tell people about Jesus, he didn’t come in a motorcade. He probably had leaves in his hair from sleeping out in the woods and may have looked like some kind of Ent. Like other Celts, he had a strong sense of God’s presence in creation — he met God there and relied on God there. The Druid religion had an ancient history, drawing on the study that built Stonehenge and manipulated spirits. Rather than bringing something no one had ever considered before, Patrick brought a definition that people needed for what God is doing in the world. The wisdom was hidden and he was telling people where it is.
In our era, like in Paul’s and Patrick’s, the rulers of the age are seeking truth in striking ways – in particle colliders and in market regulation. But, like in Paul’s and Patrick’s age, they continue to crucify the Lord of glory. It is given to us to tell the story of Jesus and demonstrate his presence with us.
Patrick-like people build a fire
Gwen and I were on our pilgrimage and following a path that would take us to the holy sites associated with some of the notable figures of Celtic Christianity. The first big stop was the Hill of Tara. Just to be honest, this was our first big day of traveling around in a car, keeping to the LEFT, and my driving about put Gwen over the edge. By the time we got back to Dublin and were eating Indian food, I thought she might take the skewer from her kabob and kill me. But it is all part of the journey.
I’d always wanted to stand on Tara and look across to Slane. Both Tara and Slane were central sites of the Druid cult. A year after Patrick arrived, the high king, King Laoghaire (leheera), was holding the annual assembly on Tara. Patrick wanted to convert the king, at best, but at least he wanted permission to travel and to do his missionary work among the kingdoms. He wasn’t getting a hearing so he decided to participate in the assembly. The king’s magicians had warned King Laoghaire that he needed to do something about Patrick or his message would overturn the established order. They were right. The king didn’t do anything and the order began to be overturned on Easter in the year 433.
Once a year all the nobility and shamans came to Tara to light the fire. The idea was that everyone else was supposed to douse their home fire and it would be relit from this one, central fire. It so happened that this ritual coincided with the Easter that year. On Holy Saturday, Patrick lit his own fire on Slane, across the valley from Tara but in plain site. The point was clear. The true light that enlightens everyone had come into the world of Erin.
King Laoghire was incensed. He sent some men to bring him Patrick dead or alive. Patrick was already headed toward the king. When the king’s men got to the spot where Patrick was, however, all they saw were a few deer. Or, as Paul might say, their unbelief had blinded them. The story goes on to tell of a miracle-working power encounter between Patrick and the court magicians which eventually got Patrick permission to work out his mission.
It is a great story and a great deal of it is probably even factual. But the truth of the story is a little deeper than the facts, which is true of the Bible and true of the whole story of the spread of faith in Jesus. Patrick’s audacity did not just come from his courage. It came from a sense that it is inevitable that Jesus will be seen. He is hidden, not absent. The fire on Slane just made the obvious more obvious.
Likewise, the story of Patrick and his band being disguised from their killers as deer, is another example of being hidden. You might not see them, or they might even be hidden from you, but that does not mean you won’t be meeting up with their faith in your own backyard. The Celtic church Patrick founded believed that creation bore the imprint of God so deeply that all you had to do was scratch the surface and you would find Jesus. Like God came to earth in Jesus, the earth reached out to welcome him; creation and the Creator were made for each other. So taking back Tara for Jesus was less a shift in political power and more an unleashing of nature to retake what had been corrupted.
Patrick’s Jesus is still hidden today
On the hill of Tara today is a relatively recent church building. The building is no longer used as a church, since the whole site has become a secularized national park. There is a statue of Patrick, of course, but there is also something else going on that surprised us.
Gwen and I decided to pay two euros from my sabbatical grant (God bless the Lily Foundation!) to take in the program in the church. It is our habit to go into church buildings and soak in the quiet and pray, whenever we come across an open one. So we went into this little building and had the place mostly to ourselves. We were there near the end of the day, since we got lost getting there, of course. A busload of Japanese tourists had just left. So we were soaking up some quiet in a very beautiful interior when the guide came in to say the presentation was about to begin.
We had the strangest experience! We had not noticed that they had installed blackout shutters to roll down over the stained glass. They flipped a switch and the room came to life, mechanically, until we had been plunged into the dark. A video presentation began about the ancient burial and ritual mound of Tara. The church had been de-churched, the hill had been un-Patricked and the government was sponsoring a recovery of Gaelic history by speculating on how the mysterious burial mound had been used. There was no mention of Christians at all, even though they had sanctified the mound for 1700 years.
The blinds came down and we Jesus-followers were re-hidden! If you go across the valley to the hill of Slane, where Patrick lit his fire, there is an even bigger tourist site devoted that much larger mound. I felt oppressed. I had just been communing with Jesus, remembering the work of Patrick, when the church was taken over by pagans celebrating human sacrifice and sun worship on the hill of Tara
I kind of felt sorry for Patrick, still on the hill, but surrounded by people replanting ignorance where he had shed light. What’s more, the M3 motorway is about to plow through he Tara valley so when you look at Slane you’ll see a freeway.
I felt sorry for us, too, since we are increasingly surrounded by people committed to putting Jesus in a museum along with all the other belief systems they are sampling. We’re also surrounded by the freeways and global warming of their dominant faith in unbridled economics disconnected from earth and God.
By the end of Lent, maybe we’ll know who Jesus really is
Patrick looks a bit forlorn up there in the painting, doesn’t he? He’s up on his hill praying for Ireland. But at the same time, I think he is looking like he is in touch with earth and sky. He is in a thin place where he is making a connection with God. Alone, vulnerable, hidden, misunderstood, opposed. But at peace and bringing something to his moment.
The Celts had a great appreciation of verses like “the rocks will cry out if you don’t praise God.” They knew that the truth had been hidden in the earth from ages past. Even the Druids with their ghastly rituals on Tara knew something of the wisdom planted in creation. Jesus revealed it in full. Jesus revealed the ignorance and rebellion of humans and the goodness and plan of God. Patrick and others were followers who revealed it as they followed Him. It didn’t matter if they had their own power, God had the power.
Jesus himself, like this scripture shows, came to the hill of Jerusalem like pilgrims had for centuries to celebrate the Passover, now at the end of our Lent. Many people recognized him and honored him. To most he was hidden. He was opposed by the powers that be who put down their shades.
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. — Luke 19:37-42
It is sad how Jesus remains hidden to so many. It is sad how the shades are coming down to hide even what has been known. Jesus weeps over our darkness. But at the same time, faith will keep springing up. Even the stones could reveal the truth about God redeeming us through Jesus! I suspect one may be talking to someone right now on some hill as they look out over their city.
You may seem hidden as a believer where you live. Circle of Hope may seem like a hidden little church. It may seem foolish, going out to do some small act of goodness to reveal Jesus. What you say may seem pitiful. What you bring may seem very weak. Don’t despair and don’t stop. God repeatedly prefers to reveal his glory in the pitiful, hidden things placed in his hands.
(Want to hear this material? Here is the speech.)