The Chicago River will turn emerald. Thousands of small children will pinch each other for failing to wear green, and plenty of people in Boston got smooched because they claimed to be Irish. On March 17 each year, every American becomes Irish. Yet, while there seems no purpose to green-sprinkled shamrock-shaped cookies, this celebration honors a great Christian man. He may not have driven any snakes out of Ireland (since they did not exist there in the first place), but Patrick did spread the Gospel across the island. Through his missionary work, Christianity took hold in the predominantly pagan nation with a strength that has lasted to this day.
The man we know today as St. Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in Britain in AD 389. His father was a wealthy Christian deacon, but most likely because the position offered tax incentives and not because the family was particularly religious. Then, when Maewyn was 16, he was kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland. For the next six years Maewyn served his owner by caring for sheep in remote regions far from human company. During this time, Maewyn turned to Christ for comfort and became deeply devoted to God.
After six years of captivity, Maewyn decided it was time to escape. He believed that God spoke to him in a dream and told him to leave Ireland. After a 200 mile walk to the coast, Maewyn escaped back to Britain, and then ended in Gaul (France) where he devoted himself to religious training, studying under St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre. There in Gaul Maewyn came to be called Patrick.
Patrick believed he was called to return to minister to the pagans in Ireland. St. Palladius was first sent to Ireland, but when he was sent on to Scotland two years later, Patrick was free to take the job. Patrick returned to the land of his captivity with the mission to preach Christ to set the spiritual captives free. He apparently had a good personality and people liked him. Familiar with the language and culture, Patrick also worked to make use of local customs in order to help the pagans understand Christianity. He used the three-leafed clover, the shamrock, in order to explain the Trinity. Because the nature-worshiping religions saw the sun as a powerful symbol, he developed what is known as the Celtic Cross, with a circle around the central section of the cross. As Patrick trekked across the island, he started churches and schools. Several times he was arrested, and yet he escaped each time.
Patrick ministered to the people of Ireland for decades, a popular, winsome man who loved Christ. Finally, on March 17, AD 461, Patrick died in County Down. His life of service has been celebrated ever since.
Today, over 100 cities hold St. Patrickís Day parades, but relatively few people know anything about the man whose life is being honored. As we drink our shamrock shakes (they only come out once a year) and wear our green ties (they only come out once a year), letís remember a man who devoted his life to the service of Christ, and whose devotion changed the spiritual direction of an entire nation.