“For in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Colossians 1:16-17, NRSV
Today, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Ireland and many other places of this world. Now outside of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a mere excuse for drinking and having rowdy celebrations of whatever is considered ‘Irish’ (including elements from Irish folklore). But St. Patrick’s Day, like other ancient church feast days (St. Valentine’s Day, for example), goes back to an actual person with an actual life lived for the glory of God and in the shadow of the cross.
St. Patrick is the most important of the patron saints of Ireland. There are many legends surrounding the life of St. Patrick (snakes and shamrocks, anyone?). The most reliable account of his life we have from a letter he wrote himself, and in which talks about his turbulent life journey, which ultimately led him to God and the service for others.
Patrick lived in the 5th century and came from a rather privileged family of clergy in Roman Britannia (modern day England or Wales). At age 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates (and I actual walked on one of the beaches that, people claim, is the location of this historic event) and brought to the Emerald Island. Patrick worked as a slave in Ireland for six years, pining for his old life, and eventually hatching a plan for an escape. After a long and perilous journey, Patrick finally arrived back home.
The most remarkable thing about St. Patrick, in my opinion, is not so much what legends tell us about this man; the most remarkable thing might just be that, shortly after he arrived back on the English Isle, he was called by God to return to the place of his misery –this time, as a missionary. And Patrick heeded the call. The rest is history. St. Patrick wasn’t the first one to bring the gospel to Ireland, but he proved to be a very successful missionary by not just dismissing old religious traditions and symbols, but by explaining them in the context of the Christian faith. Celtic crosses, like the one you see in the picture, are an example of how pre-Christian symbolism and patterns were incorporated into the new faith.
The circle with interwoven patterns is an ancient Celtic symbol of the universe and the interconnectedness of all things. There are theories that the woven patterns we find on many Celtic stone crosses were actually an attempt to imitate the weaving patterns of reeds, twigs, and straw – and that the Celtic crosses for several centuries were actually made out of those materials (which would explain why we don’t have any surviving Celtic stone crosses from before about the 8th century).
It is said that St. Patrick was the one to combine the Christian cross with the Celtic circle and its distinctive patterns, purposely connecting the life and death of Christ with the experience of the divine in the universe. To this day Celtic Christianity embodies so much of what it means to understand, and honor, how all aspects of our life and of the bounty of creation and intertwined with each other and with the mystery of Christ.
Christ died for all of creation – and not just for a limited group of chosen human beings. The Celtic Cross reminds us of this. Patrick understood that his life was mysteriously intertwined with God and the people he first so despised. He understood that his life, and the life of all of us, is part of the mystery of God which we experience in nature, in life events, and in tradition.
This week, I invite you to put a stone at the foot of the cross, with a prayer for all God’s creation. Remember how you are an intricate part of all God has made, and how delicate the circle of life is.
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