Psalm 97:1-2. 7-12
1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12
The commemoration of Patrick of Ireland is certainly one of the more popular saints’ days on the calendar. Even people who aren’t Irish by birth, marriage, adoption or the grace of God find something green in their closet to wear, have a craving for corned beef and cabbage, and go to pubs to drink green colored beer. Whole waterways turn green which, on any other day would cause great alarm, are treated as a lark on March 17th. Parades are held, special blessings given, little lads and lasses perform the steps they so carefully learned in their step-dancing classes, leprechauns pop up everywhere, and, in general, even if someone isn’t really Irish they do something to celebrate. Sure and begorrah, ’tis a fine day, even if it’s pouring rain, because it celebrates Patrick and all things Irish — except, perhaps, those for whom orange rather than green is the color of celebration. But, I imagine, even they wouldn’t turn down a glass raised in honor of Ireland’s most notable adopted son.
While Patrick surely didn’t chase the snakes out of Ireland, he did do a lot of traveling, preaching and converting. A Briton by birth, he was captured and sold into slavery by Irish pirates, being freed (or perhaps escaping) six years later and returned home to his family and to prepare to become a priest. In a way it seems ironic that he was sent to serve in Ireland, the place where he had been a slave. Still, he went to Armagh and went about his job as a priest and then as a bishop.
Patrick left us his story in the form of a confession like Augustine wrote and he left some letters. Best of all, he left (or folks attributed it to him) one of the most beautiful poem-prayers in Christendom, at least in my very humble opinion. It’s included in numerous hymnals, including the 1982, and is usually sung when a very long processional hymn is needed (or at an ordination). I refer to Hymn # 370, generally known as “St Patrick’s Breastplate.” The congregation almost always groans when the bulletin or hymn board (or power point) indicates this is the hymn that will be sung, simply because of it’s length and 90% minor key. Pagan friends refer to it as a binding spell, while Christians prefer to call it a binding prayer. In a culture where there’s a prayer for everything from getting out of bed to going to bed and all the tasks and problems that might be encountered during that time, this would have been a morning prayer, speaking as it does of rising and girding and the request for protection from whatever the day brings. Not a bad way to start the day.
The one section that always grasps me is the one section in a major key, one of the oldest tunes in Celtic music.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
How reassuring it must have been to Patrick to have the confidence that Christ was indeed all around him, guarding and guiding, as well as the whole Trinity, the company of heaven, the communion of saints, the prophets, the scriptures, creeds, beauties and power of nature and, ultimately God leading it all. To a new ordinand, it represents all that they are taking on as they begin that phase of their ministry. Lay folk can sing it in the conviction that they don’t need special chrismation or promises to claim what Patrick did. It is, in a sort of Irish nutshell, a binding prayer, a statement of faith and a memorizable way of linking oneself to all of creation both in heaven above and earth below. By its memorization, it goes inward, to be pulled out when necessary or desired, and retained for the next morning or time.
We have a lot to thank Ireland for, including Patrick and Patrick’s Lorica, the Breastplate. Who needs green beer when they can have a daily dose of poetry, prayer and statement of faith, all in one shot?
Bail ó Dhia ort – the blessing of God be on you.
(Note: The Breastplate of St. Patrick with tune and lyrics can be found at the Oremus website.)