Sunday, 17 March 2013

Getting to the heart of Saint Patrick’s message

Saint Patrick alongside Saint Cuthbert, Saint Finbar and Saint Laurence O’Toole in the stained glass windows in the baptistery in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 2013

10 a.m., Festival Eucharist, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Tobit 13: 1b-7; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 31-38.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saint Patrick’s Day is a good day for parades and parties, for trying to show each other we have a cúpla focal, for singing a few hymns and songs in Irish, and for breaking our Lenten fasts and forgetting our Lenten resolutions.

But when we consider the long run of Christian history over 2,000 years, Saint Patrick’s Day is a reasonably late innovation, dating from only the 17th century, and has only been a public holiday since 1903. Indeed, the first Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin was not held until 1931.

But then, it is a great Irish tradition to invent traditions.

When it comes to Saint Patrick’s Day sermons, particularly if they are preached by a priest called Patrick, we may get a lot of silly talk about shamrocks, slavery and snakes, if not shillelaghs.

The myths and legends about Saint Patrick that encrust Saint Patrick’s Day have not been there for that long. But those legends and myths have been there long enough to mean that anyone who questions them or tries to get to the truth about Saint Patrick, to talk about the real man behind the story, is dangerously close to a folk concept of heresy.

We help to massage those myths and legends here in Christ Church Cathedral with our stained glass window in the baptistery depicting Saint Patrick with mitre and crozier, standing on the head of a snake.

But, rather than trying to diminish or even demolish the Patrick myth, before we go out to indulge in the revelries on the streets, could we just indulge ourselves a little this morning by trying to engage with the real Saint Patrick and by asking how he is relevant to today’s burning issues on the streets?

Let me first of all consider some of the things Saint Patrick did not do and some of the things Saint Patrick was not, and ask some questions that these raise:

1, Saint Patrick was not an Irishman. It might be an anachronism – or more correctly a prochronism – to describe him as such, but you can get my point when I say Saint Patrick was an Englishman. We like to think of Christianity being brought from Ireland to the Europe of the Dark Ages. But Saint Patrick came from a Christian society that had arrived in our neighbouring island generations beforehand with the Romans.

Perhaps we need to be more generous in our attitude to Anglo-Irish relations, and certainly Saint Patrick’s family background should put to shame those in Ireland who still use denigrating and derogatory phrases such as “Brits” that smack of racism. Saint Patrick reminds us that being English and being Irish is about as close as you can get in nationalities.

Our first reading this morning [Tobit 13: 1b-7] is a reminder that the good news of God’s kingdom is not for one, confined or limited group of people but for all nations, throughout all ages.

2, Saint Patrick did not teach about the Trinity using the shamrock. That is legend. And if he did use the shamrock, he was perilously close to heresy. When we see one leaf, we do not see the whole shamrock, when we see two leaves we do not see the whole shamrock. The Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, the Holy Spirit is fully God, but they do not work independently of each other, and cannot be torn apart and shredded, or held up as one God, each on their own like little idols or totems.

But the Trinitarian challenge from Saint Patrick must force us to ask many questions. If we do not have a Trinitarian faith, how can we enter into the dance with the Trinity, the perichoresis (περιχώρησις) of the Trinity?

We can end up making our own gods, in our own image and likeness, rather than entering into a relationship with the God who makes us in God’s image and likeness.

What are our idols today?

Did we destroy our economy because we made little gods of our money, our banking system and our quest for growth that benefitted a few at the expense of the many?

3, Saint Patrick did not expel the snakes from Ireland. The incident is not mentioned by Saint Patrick in his own writings and does not appear in the stories about him until the 11th century. But, in the building of the nation myths, Saint Patrick was seen to need a legend parallel to Saint George slaying the dragon and Saint Marcel delivering Paris from the monster.

Saint Paul in our epistle reading calls on us to renounce the shameful things and to turn our backs on cunning practices, to be conscientious and truthful [II Corinthians 4: 2].

But what snakes and dragons do you want to see expelled from Ireland?

The greed that fed the Celtic Tiger?

That racism that so discriminates against foreigners and refugees that it would be happy to have a present-day Patrick work in oppressive conditions that would be today’s equivalent of the slopes of Slemish, or reject the newcomer that comes with enthusiasm to share the Christian message … from Nigeria, Latvia, Lithuania or Romania, or perhaps just from England?

You might respond, “But we already have Christianity in Ireland!”

But do we? And if so, do we take it to heart?

And do we want to share it, with enthusiasm?

The first reading this morning reminds us that we are all children of exile and calls on us to turn to God “with all your heart, and with all your soul” [Tobit 13: 6].

4, Saint Patrick was not the first person to bring Christianity to Ireland. The legends about Saint Declan of Ardmore, Saint Ciaran of Seir Kieran, Saint Ailbe of Emly, Saint Ibar of Wexford, and so on, bringing Christianity to many parts of the southern half of Ireland, may be nothing more than legend.

But underpinning them is a truth that Christianity was here in Ireland for generations before Saint Patrick arrived. His role was as a co-ordinator and as a figure of unity – as bishops should be – to reap what others had sown, but that sower and reaper could rejoice together in a shared Irish Christianity, in one church together [see John 4: 35-38].

Are we still committed to bringing Christianity together, to the visible unity of the Church?

Or, are the lines we are going to say in the Creed in a few moments, “we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” just another tradition, something we are committed to but not willing to do very much about?


How did you react to the election of the new Pope Francis I? When he asked the people gathered in Saint Peter's Square to pray for him before he blessed them, were you positive enough in your reaction to pray for him too, to ask God to bless him in his new ministry, his new tasks, his new mission?

And I could go on … Saint Patrick did not wear a mitre and green liturgical robes – certainly not in Lent – he probably never carried a crozier, did not turn the people of Skerries into goats, did not fetch water from a well in Nassau Street, and certainly did not build Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin … nor, for that matter, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh – Armagh’s claims to Saint Patrick date only from the eighth century.

But please do not take me as one over-enthusiastic revisionist historian, nor as someone who wants to tear apart some of the cherished concepts that help to hold together our shared identity with all its diversity.

Legends apart, let me summarise some of the positive things about Saint Patrick that have been underlying his story.

Saint Patrick was enthusiastic about sharing the Christian message. If I said that the Christian message is not at the heart of the Festivities in Dublin today, you might tick me off for being a killjoy. But we are less than joyful and increasingly reticent about sharing our faith in the marketplace today, something for which the disciples themselves are admonished in this morning’s Gospel reading [see John 4: 34-38].

Saint Patrick was a unifying force for the varying strands of Christianity in Ireland. That was why he was sent on his mission to Ireland. But so often every one of the Churches in Ireland is so insecure in its identity, that we cling too often to the little things that make us different instead of rejoicing in the truly important things that we have in common.

Saint Patrick knew what economic and social oppression were from an early stage in his life. Saint Patrick challenged the established order of the day. Yet he too was afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed [see I Corinthians 4: 8-9].

Like Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well, who provides the context and the setting for this morning’s Gospel reading [John 4: 31-38, see John 4: 1-42 for the full context], Saint Patrick was affirmative of the women who came to him with their questions about religion, but who had been marginalised and who had been kept out of religious society and debate. Indeed, so affirmative was Saint Patrick that his detractors accused him of being beguiled by them.

As the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest, Saint Patrick could hardly uphold the rigours of clerical celibacy, or for that matter some of our moralising and negatively judgmental attitudes towards sexuality and gender today.

Saint Patrick is a pastorally sensitive and healing figure. I was reminded of this aspect of his character when I heard that the new Pope is a pastoral Pope, sensitive to the needs of the people, preferring God’s preferential option for the poor rather than power and authority, not turning away single mothers who bring their children to baptism, embracing HIV + patients on their deathbeds in hospitals. It has been said he is following in the humble footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi. I pray and I hope. And I pray and I hope too that he follows in the footsteps of Saint Patrick, the real Saint Patrick.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Almighty God,
in your providence you chose your servant Patrick
to be the apostle of the Irish people,
to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error
to the true light and knowledge of your Word:
Grant that walking in that light
we may come at last to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Hear us, most merciful God,
for that part of the Church
which through your servant Patrick you planted in our land;
that it may hold fast the faith entrusted to the saints
and in the end bear much fruit to eternal life:
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Festival Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday 17 March, 2013 (The Feast of Saint Patrick), sung by the choirs of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and Saint Peter’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Belfast, together with the Christ Church Brass Ensemble.

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