I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same, the Three-in-One, and One-in-Three,
of whom all nature hath creation, eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
Praise to the Lord of my salvation; salvation is of Christ the Lord.
— St. Patrick’s Breastplate, C.F. Alexander version
Nestled in the liturgically purple lenten desert is a tiny green shard of resurrection.
Like a verdant weed sprouting up in the newly-ploughed spring garden mud, the feast day of blessed Patrick feels like it should belong to the Paschal season, rather than the penitential 40 days which precede it. But on March 17, almost a month before Easter Sunday, the emerald festivities break out. Sackcloth and ashes are put aside in favour of Irish music, colourful parades, frisky leprechauns, and veritable rivers of green beer. Now, if I were a liturgical purist, I would break into a dour sermon on the corrupting nature of cultural churchianity.
But instead, I’m drawn to St. Patrick’s Day as a parable: a tiny, homely hologram of the power of the Spirit to break in where she is not expected, an anticipatory interruption.
I love St. Patrick. Something in my quasi-Celtic DNA resonates with the many stories and teachings which come from this early episcopal missionary. One of my favourite tales of Patrick involves his confrontation with the Irish High King at Tara. It was right before the great fire festival of Beltane. Custom dictated that all the households would extinguish their own fires to give the honour of the first new spring fire to the king, who would then be seen as the source of fire for the people. Now, we’re not sure if Patrick knew about this custom or not, but he went ahead and lit the Paschal flame on a nearby hilltop before the king lit his.
Well, all hell broke loose. The king was furious, and his druid advisers warned that if the flame of Patrick wasn’t extinguished then and there, it would continue to burn for ages to come. So the warriors were sent out to fetch Patrick’s head.
This is where the legend gets a bit mixed up. In some versions, Patrick engages with the druids and defeats them in a contest of miracle and magic. Other versions of the story report Patrick and his companions singing and chanting the lorica, or “breastplate prayer,” which has come down to us in hymnody. The little congregation is transformed (somewhat shamanistically!) into a herd of deer. The soldiers pass by unaware, and Patrick’s herd is able to make its escape.
For me, what is most interesting in this particular portion of the Patrick lore is not the somewhat predictable conflict between Paganism and Christianity. Rather, it is Patrick’s courage in defying the custom of the king. Kings and emperors (and plastic presidents) throughout the ages show an unswerving devotion to the exercise of dominion. Power is key: power to manage the religious impulses of the people, power to control the landscape, power to appear godlike in nature.
For the High King of Ireland, the sacred calendar of the druids was a potent tool to reinforce his “divine mandate” to rule. But, wittingly or not, Patrick contradicted that power with a counterpower of the gospel. Or rather, the Spirit lit Patrick’s Paschal fire as a sign of resurrection reality breaking into the tightly controlled domain of royal politics. The Easter fire came at the “wrong” time, and it preceded the fire of the king. It was an anticipatory interruption of spiritual freedom and joy in the midst of the pre-Beltane shadows. No wonder the king wanted heads to roll!
I hope I don’t stretch the parable of St. Patrick’s feast too far when I suggest that it has lessons for us in this particular place and time. The powers-that-be in our world are hell-bent on consolidating control. Whether its rejecting refugees, pushing pipelines though Indigenous lands, or perpetuating colonialist agendas, the High Kings of our world are showing their true colours, and by gum, they are not green!
For those of us seeking justice, loving kindness, and trying to walk humbly with our God these days, we are in dire need of that Easter fire. May we, like blessed Patrick before us, find ways to challenge the control of the king, and to become anticipatory interruptions of the life of the world to come.