On Shamrocks, Bonfires and Green Doughnuts

Today is St. Patrick’s Day. I hope you are wearing green, lest you fall victim to the vicious Irish pinch. If you don’t know much about the day, you probably don’t have any Irish heritage. For those who are uninformed, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17 each year, the date of Patrick’s death in the fifth century. In Ireland it is both a national holiday and a holy day.
The day was first celebrated in America in the 1700’s by Irish immigrants in Boston, and spread among cities with large Irish-American populations. Today it is celebrated around the country, with many customs and traditions associated with the day, including the wearing of green clothing. There are parades and parties and the Chicago River is famously dyed green for the occasion, and of course, McDonald’s brings us the Shamrock Shake each year. Even Krispy Kreme is getting in on the celebration this year, selling “O’riginal Glazed” doughnuts–that are green–all day today. (#greendoughnuts)
I am not sure where the leprechauns came from, or the rainbows and pots of gold, but the emphasis on the color green was a way of remembering the beautiful green countryside of Ireland. The ancient Irish were also noted to have burned green leaves each spring to make the soil richer. Green is also a reminder of the three-leaved shamrock that grows all over Ireland, which Patrick used in his sermons as a visual aid to teach about the Trinity.
As the patron saint of Ireland, Patrick was credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish.
He was actually born in Britain, but was captured by pirates at age 16, and enslaved in Ireland for six years before being freed and returning to Wales. He was a self-professed pagan who came to know Christ during a stint in prison. Patrick later studied in a monastery in present-day France, where he found his life’s passion, and became a priest, missionary and “church-planter” for almost 30 years in Ireland. He converted Celtric Druids to faith in Christ and baptized tens of thousands of new Christians.
It is hard to separate fact from fiction, truth from tradition, or legend from “fake news” in the stories and myths about St. Patrick. You have probably heard the legend that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that there were snakes there to begin with. (Or maybe he just did a real good job!) Many believe that story probably served as a metaphor for bringing Christianity to the land and driving out the pagan Druids.
One of my favorite stories about Patrick was passed down through the generations in Ireland. It is supposedly true, and is reminiscent of the Old Testament account of Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. It happened at Easter time, when Patrick lit an enormous bonfire on the Hill of Slane as part of a vigil to commemorate the resurrection of Christ.
He lit the fire in spite of the High King of Tara, who had chosen the same night to light his own druid festival fire. The king had prohibited the lighting of any rival fires in the country. But when night fell, there were two sources of light that broke the darkness: the druid festival fire, and the bonfire of St. Patrick.
Outraged, the High King commanded his men to extinguish Patrick’s bonfire, but try as they might, they would not put out the flames. St. Patrick’s fire miraculously could not be extinguished. Eventually, the High King surrendered his armies and surrendered his heart, in awe of Patrick’s God. And they worshiped God that very day.
What an incredible testimony of faith, and faithfulness, and you don’t have to be Irish to celebrate God’s “showing up and showing out” through the life of Patrick. My prayer is that in this increasingly pagan world in which we live today, our faith and our mission would reflect that of St. Patrick, and the fire in our lives would burn bright for Christ.
Have a blessed St. Patrick’s Day. I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.