Since I was a kid, all my memories of Saint Patrick’s Day have been about normal stuff turned green: green milkshakes at McDonalds, green pancakes for breakfast, green clothes for school, and green beer for adults.
But is eating and drinking green stuff on St. Patrick’s Day all there is to this holiday?
Saint Patrick Then
Saint Patrick was a Christian missionary to Ireland and this day is really a celebration of the Gospel message he proclaimed to a lost nation [read my short history here]. Patrick did more than just preach the Good News of salvation, he also helped transform traditions. The Irish were often thought to be more refined and less idolatrous than those of Gaul and Britain, but St. Patrick’s writings tell a much different story. The 6th century “Hymn of Fiech,” reminds us.
“Over the tribes of Ireland lay a gloom—
Tribes who worshipped idols;
They believed not in the true God,
Nor in his proper Trinity.”
One of the practices Patrick sought to change was the worship of the sun. In the “Confessions”, St Patrick we read the following:
A practice connected with the worship of the sun, which still survives in this country, is the lighting of bonfires on the 24th of June; in heathen times these fires were made on the 1st of May, which is called, to the present day, in the Irish language, “the day of Baal’s fire” (La Bealltaine), the sun having been worshipped under the name of Baal. A very ancient notice of this day occurs, in which it is said—“The Druids used to make two goodly [lucky] fires, with great incantations on them, and they were used to bring the cattle between them against the diseases of each year.” The change from May to June is popularly attributed to St. Patrick, and said to have been made in honour of St. John the Baptist. We have in this practice a strange proof of the tenacity with which the rites of superstition retain their hold on the human mind; for at this day, after the lapse of fourteen centuries, the same custom continues, and the same power of preserving the cattle from evil is attributed to it.
Worship of the sun was not their only idolotry. As historian Dr. Lanigan observes, the Irish worshipped pillar stones, or Dallauns, and so the Christian missionaries would carve crosses on these stones to point the superstitious Irish toward the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The following passage outlines how the Irish worshipped Cromm by sacrificing their children to him.
“Magh Sleacht (the plain of slaughter) is so called because the chief of the idols of Ireland was there—namely, Cromm Cruach, and twelve idols of stone standing round it, and its head was of gold; and this was the god of all the people who possessed Ireland before the arrival of St. Patrick: to this they sacrificed the first born of every offspring, and the first born of their own sons. Tighernmhas, the son of Follan King of Ireland, accompanied by the men and women of Ireland, supplicated this idol on Samin’s day [the 1st of November], with such adoration, that they lacerated their elbows by falling and adoring, until they inflicted wounds on their foreheads, and bruised their noses and cheeks even till the blood came; hence it is called Magh Sleacht, or the plain of slaughter.”
Did you catch the name of their god, Cromm? Does this mean Conan the Barbarian was secretly Irish? But, I digress. What history shows is that in the face of serious idolatry, St. Patrick fought against a corrupt culture with a demonstrable “zeal for God, even for the living God.”
Saint Patrick Now
Today, as we celebrate with our green stuff in hand, Christians in America are faced with our own culture of idolatry.
- We worship Politicians at the expense of freedom.
- We worship Women’s Rights at the expense of the unborn.
- We worship Science at the expense of reason.
- We worship Nature at the expense of humanity.
But in the face of persecution and ridicule are we, the followers of Jesus, willing to follow the example of St. Patrick; live counter to our culture and demonstrate our “zeal for God, even for the living God?”