As we prepare for the Easter season, I wanted to offer you an Easter story not really touted, but involves the patron saint of today, Saint Patrick. There are many stories surrounding Saint Patrick. It seems to be pretty well accepted that he was born in Scotland and taken as a slave at age 16 to Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd until he escaped. He made his way back to his family, but, according to tradition, was subject to many dreams calling him to bring the gospel to pagan Ireland. He subsequently entered the priesthood, studied in Britain and returned to Ireland as a missionary.
Legend has it, that on Easter of 433, the High King of Ireland, Laoghaire, forbade lighting any fires on any night leading up to the pagan festival of Ostara at which time a huge bonfire would be lit on the hill of Tara. The hill of Tara was the location where the high kings of Ireland were crowned and was steeped in tradition and legend by the time Patrick arrived on the scene. On Easter of 433, Patrick, in violation of the king’s order, lit a bonfire on the hill of Slane, directly across from Tara. Legend has it that the fire burned so bright the king sent soldiers to arrest the perpetrator and extinguish the fire. Patrick and his men were protected when God made them appear as a herd of deer and so they escaped the soldiers and Patrick made his way to the king at Tara where he confronted and defeated the king’s druids and then preached the gospel to the court. As this was happening, the king’s soldiers returned and informed him that Patrick’s fire could not be put out. Although the king rejected Patrick’s message, he allowed him to continue to spread Christianity in Ireland.
During my last trip to Ireland, I visited both the hill of Tara and the hill of Slane. I can’t say they are the most impressive of hills, but they are definitely the high ground in the area. As I toured the grounds, I saw the statue of St. Patrick, the historical markers and took in the surrounding sights. That area is home to a number of “High Crosses” and is steeped in both Catholic and Christian tradition. While touring the grounds, I could not help but be moved by the history surrounding it. While it seems somewhat crazy to write it, the stillness of the area and the aura around it was palpable. It was then I realized the comparison with the story of Elijah on Mount Carmel.
That is one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament for a number of reasons, not least of which, because it showed a steadfast priest of God standing for Him against the overwhelming power of his day. What spoke to me, though, was not the comparison to Elijah, but the disregard of post-Bible history. I realized while I was sitting there that while I was prepared to accept the truth of the Bible, I was reluctant to embrace the stories of the saints and martyrs post-Bible. Sure, the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and others are compelling, but the stories of God’s work through His servants in the post-Bible era seem to be treated as either fiction or at best misunderstood legend. The same God I believe rose Lazarus from the dead, somehow seems different than the God who could make St. Patrick look like a deer. That’s when it struck me. If God truly is the same, yesterday, today and forever, why couldn’t the legends be true? Maybe He didn’t make them look like deer, but the fact that God delivered Patrick from his enemies and gave him favor in front of the king and his court is in full harmony with God’s actions in both the Old and New Testaments.
I cannot state for certain that the events happened as reported, however I can state that, as I stood there, walking the same ground, seeing the same sights, and breathing the same air, I felt the presence of God. Not the Catholic God, the Protestant God, nor the Jewish Yahweh, but God, the Creator of the universe, the salvation of His people and the hope of mankind. Whether St. Patrick is responsible for getting rid of the snakes or not, he had a positive impact for Christ in Ireland and the stories of his work, while seemingly unbelievable, should be looked at with the same heart and mind as we look at the stories in the Bible itself. Regardless, it is clear to me that God used a slave named Patrick to reach the people of Ireland and all of us today. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!