St. Patrick and the Banishing of Snakes

Today is St. Patrick’s Day and no doubt tonight as I am leading Bible study I will be chided for the blatant lack of green on my person.  For most of us, St. Patrick’s Day is characterized by parades, leprechauns, and not getting pinched.  There is, of course, much more to the story than our trivial Americanization of it. 

Today actually commemorates the death of Patrick in 460 AD.  Much of what we know about the man is written from his own hand in one of two letters that have survived from him.  He experienced many things, from war, slavery, and imprisonment to visions of God, conversion, and a heart for missions in Ireland.  There are also many stories of legend concerning the Irish missionary.  Typically, legends have some root in truth that get expanded and exaggerated over time.  One of these legends in particular stands out to me.

It is said that St. Patrick, during his mission in Ireland, boldly took his place on a hilltop and using his wooden staff banished all snakes from the island.  We now know that there were never any snakes there to begin with, but that the language of “snakes” was probably used as a metaphor to represent the large pagan worship that was accepted in Ireland as well as popular heresies at the time, including Pelagianism (original sin did not destroy man’s ability to do moral and spiritual good).  The concept of “banishing” these snakes is a good one and in a culture today where we are more interested in engaging in “conversation” about matters that are in opposition to Scripture, St. Patrick was more interested in having them eliminated as to not pollute the minds of those who desperately needed Christ.  As we engage in sharing our faith, one of our tasks is to “keep the snakes away” and keep bringing the conversation back to Christ.  This is exactly what Jesus himself did in John 4.  The woman at the well was interested in all kinds of different things, but Jesus kept bringing it back to himself.  Not that we should be afraid to intelligently discuss questions and concerns, but we are to discuss them in light of Scripture, making clear affirmations of what is true and right.

Patrick did some other things that would be debated in today’s church.  The Emerging church folk would probably love Patrick’s opinion of winning the lost to Christ as he would regularly use what they already knew and worshiped in a way that directed their attention to Christ.  For example, Patrick would light a bonfire on Easter because the Celts were used to worshiping pagan gods with bonfires.  He added an image of the sun on the cross (today known as a Celtic cross) because the Celts venerated the sun which would make worship of the cross easier for them.  To be sure, Patrick was an interesting figure.

So, there is more to the tradition of St. Patrick’s Day than getting pinched.  Oh, it still might be a good idea to wear green.  Especially if you work with children or teenagers.  🙂   

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