In the autumn of 2013, I found myself standing alongside the grave of St. Patrick. Yes, the St. Patrick whose name is invoked every March 17th over tables laden with corned beef, cabbage, and endless pints of Guinness (I’m an Irish whiskey man, myself).
His remains are upriver from Strangford Lough, where my own Scot-Irish ancestors once lived, buried in the aptly named village of Downpatrick, and next to a massive, gorgeous cathedral that also bears his name. His marker, a chunk of local Mourne granite, carries a modest cross and the worn but still clear letters: P-A-T-R-I-C.
A sucker for all things ancient and Celtic, I snapped pictures, took copious notes, and trembled with ecstasy over the privilege of visiting this holy site. I learned later, that I was simply a sucker. I had been duped by the cleverness of a skilled marketeer.
It was not the bygone disciples of St. Patrick who set up his impressive gravesite on that hillside. It was Francis Joseph Bigger. Francis loved his native Northern Ireland, and over his decades he restored castles, renovated pubs, promoted the use of the Gaelic languages, boosted tourism, and generally championed every Irish cause he could find.
In April of 1900 – almost 1500 years after Patrick – Bigger placed the gravestone next to the Downpatrick cathedral. At least he payed to have it placed. It took a dozen men two weeks to actually place the stone. The truth is, we have no idea where Saint Patrick is buried. Maybe the dust that once was him is, indeed, beneath that giant rock. Maybe he is interred in the foundation or basement of the cathedral. Maybe he isn’t anywhere near that hillside.
Having had a while to think about it – and with a few of those Irish whiskies to ease my mind – I’m okay with all this and feel less defrauded. After all, Francis Bigger was not interested in beguiling anyone. His was an act of service, as he wanted more people to visit his homeland, fall in love with the storied countryside, and learn more about his island’s patron saint.
It worked. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Patrick’s grave annually. Going there they learn, as I did, that St. Patrick is much more than a poster boy for springtime revelry. He was a remarkable man of love, humility, and patience.
He came to Ireland with a refreshing spirituality, treating others with dignity. And rather than forcing his views on people or expecting them to conform to his personal orthodoxy, he met his neighbors where they were. Francis Bigger, in his own way, was telling this story to the world.
Yes, it is true: We can never know for certain where St. Patrick rests, but we certainly know the legacy he has left behind. He chose the path of loving sacrifice, living a life of service. From his grave, wherever it may be, Patrick still calls us to follow that path. Sláinte!
A friend of mine for many years teaches ESL, or “English as a Second Language,” at a small college in the Southern Appalachians. His students are of various backgrounds, their native language ranging from Spanish to Arabic. My friend is well suited for the job.
When he was younger he was a missionary in Mexico City. Later, he served an international development organization in Kurdish Iraq. His last overseas post was in the mountains of Yemen, where he worked at a hospital. The hospital was operated by one of the largest evangelical mission organizations in the world, an organization that decided the hospital should be closed.
Why? The results were not what the executives were hoping for, frankly. They refused to continue to pour dollars into a remote locale without seeing more converts; more “Christianization;” and more church start-ups. My friend, along with his peers, begged the mission board to reconsider – not for the sake of their employment – but for the sake of Yemen.
The hospital, meager as it was, performed life-saving surgeries every day. Tens of thousands of patients came through the doors each year. And more importantly, attitudes were changing. In the villages surrounding the hospital, locals found it increasingly difficult to hate or be suspicious of those who were saving their children.
My friends laid all of this on the table and was met with the coldest rejection possible. “We have not obligation,” one of the executives remarked glibly, “to the bodies of those whose souls are going to hell.” Within a few short years the hospital was closed, my friend came home emotionally and spiritually crushed, and an entire region lost the only medical care available for scores and scores of miles.
Today, Yemen is enduring one of the worst humanitarian crises seen since WW2. Thousands have died as Saudi Arabia has bombed the country into the apocalypse, and 80% of the population needs daily, basic, humanitarian assistance: Food, water, medicine, and shelter. The country is dying.
It is not the Gospel – literally meaning the “Good News” – to abandon suffering people, no matter who they are or how different their religious beliefs. Shame on those who defame the compassion of Christ by turning their backs on the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized; the sick, hungry, and thirsty; the imprisoned, the foreigner, or the immigrant.
Faith requires that we remain engaged, doing all the good we can do, where we can do it, for as long as we can do it, serving those whom Jesus called, “the least of these.” For the Good News is not so much a golden parachute that will eventually allow a few to float away to a harp-playing, cloud-riding, hymn-singing heaven.
Rather, it is an evil-rebuking, society-changing, personal-transforming, status-quo-reversal that brings liberation and healing to the world – in the here and now. And ironically, it may be in the saving of others’ bodies, that we find salvation for our own souls.
The Revised Common Lectionary is a book used to guide Protestant churches in worship. Certainly, not all Protestants follow it. After all, we who are Protestant are no less than that: Those who protest. My earliest spiritual mentors would have never used the Lectionary. It was only for the elitist “high church;” too restrictive, sure to “quench the Spirit;” and yes, it was far too Catholic.
These objections aside, I have learned that the Lectionary provides congregations – entire denominations – a structured, thematic reading of the Bible week after week. This allows parishioners to hear the full chorus of Scripture, not just a few favorite voices.
The Lectionary theme for this weekend is “The Transfiguration.” It was a stunning moment in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. As the gospel writers recall, Jesus and three of his disciples climbed to the top of a high mountain. There, “Jesus’ appearance was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Then Elijah and Moses appeared and began talking with Jesus. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son. Listen to him.’”
Theologians have deliberated for centuries the significance and meaning of this story. I’ll leave the finer points of those discussions to others, except to say, that such a dazzling “mountain top experience” must have energized Jesus and his disciples for the journey before them.
They would need the boost, for their most trying days were about to begin. Jesus would descend the holy mountain, his disciples on his heels, and march toward Jerusalem; into controversy, into suffering, and on to a cross. The mountain was needed, because the journey into the valley lay immediately ahead – a valley chocked full of confusion, bewilderment, and more questions than answers.
Today, if you visit the traditional site of the Transfiguration, you go to Mt. Tabor. In my view, it is one of the most beautiful places in Israel. The green, fertile Holy Land stretches out in all directions beneath you, while the cooling winds of the Mediterranean dance in massive pine trees casting their shade.
It is easy to imagine heaven coming down to earth in a spot like that. But Jesus didn’t take the disciples up to the mountain to remain there, in heaven, so to speak. He took them there to fuel them; to bolster their faith; to encourage them for the valley below.
Of this be certain: You will have to go back down in the valley, for as sure as the occasional moments of glory, there is the daily task of gutting life out below. And as sure as the dazzle of heaven, is the dullness of earth.
Yes, we need the mountain. We should visit as often as we can to breathe lofty, rarified air. We watch heaven rip open and spill its contents to the ground. Then, encouraged and filled with wonder, we hit the trail , descending the mountaintop to live real lives of real faith in a real world.