The Scandal of St. Patrick’s Day was an actual event in history (I wasn’t just saying that to get your attention). In 1888, the mayor of New York City decided not to attend the famous parade honoring the patron saint of Ireland, nor to fly the Irish flag over City Hall on March 17th. Though it cost the mayor dearly in the next election because a large portion of his constituents were Irish immigrants, that’s not the scandal I’d like to explore.
The scandal I’m naming is how we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in North American culture. Allow me to demonstrate. What comes to mind when you think of St. Patrick’s Day? Chances are, your mind offered you flashes of green in the form of beads, T-shirts, and shamrocks. Given more time to ponder, however, I’m willing to bet that your thoughts might also turn to parades (with police officers, fire fighters, and bagpipes), Irish music, and the fear of being pinched for not wearing green. These are all fun and celebratory images that no doubt come from participating and observing the ubiquitous revelry of this mid-March holiday, which in our present society seems to transcend actual Irish ancestors. St. Patrick’s Day is the one day of the year when everyone gets to be a little bit Irish.
And why not celebrate the day? In Christian traditions that observe the practice of Lenten fasts, St. Patrick’s Day is looked at as a day of celebration—a day for feasting (as are many days that honor the saints of the past). It’s a day to put aside those things we gave up in our Lenten quests for deeper discipleship and honor a Romano-British man named Patrick. (That’s right—he wasn’t even Irish!)
Although the dating is uncertain, it is thought that sometime in the fifth century, at the age of 16, Patrick was captured from his British home by Irish raiders and forced into slavery back in Ireland. After six years of harsh labor and near starvation, he was able to escape and return to Britain. Eventually, he became a cleric and returned to Ireland to proclaim the gospel.
Considered today to be the founder of Christianity in Ireland, St. Patrick stands as an incredible reminder for us all of God’s call to forgive and reconcile with our enemies. Despite being held captive for six years, St. Patrick had compassion for Ireland and endeavored to not just forgive, but to serve those who persecuted him. His life is a testimony of the Christ-like servanthood to which we are all called. And how do we celebrate his life? Green stuff.
As we approach St. Patrick’s Day, particularly during a time of COVID isolation, perhaps we might reimagine how we celebrate this holy day. Not that we can’t embrace all that our culture offers to celebrate his life, but what if we also made sure the folks in our congregations and ministries knew the origins of why we celebrate St. Patrick’s life and legacy?