Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Here are a few words about Patrick I have written over the years:
Some twenty miles south of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is the Ulster village of Downpatrick. It has 10,000 residents, two dozen pubs (a number of which I have had the pleasure of chugging a few pints), and one massive, glorious church: Down Cathedral. Built on a holy hill once used by the druids, transformed into a monastery and finally a church, it is also the traditional burial site of Ireland’s most revered saint: Patrick.
Patrick spent his life loving and serving the people of his adopted island home, so when he died on March 17, 461, he was buried on that sacred site, giving his name to the village and eventually the cathedral. But Ireland has three patron saints, and when Patrick died, a little girl emerged to take his place as spiritual leader – a native Celtic woman. Her name was Brigid.
In many ways, she was as important and influential as Patrick, carrying his mantle and his mission. When she died, she too was buried at Downpatrick (As an aside she has the best Irish prayer ever written. It begins, “I’d like to give a lake of beer to God for all eternity,” and ends, “We’ll be drinking to good health in heaven forever, and every drop will be a prayer.”).
When Brigid died, a four-year old Irish boy’s life was just beginning. He was named Columba. In time, on the island of Iona, he established a library, a theology school, was the first person to take Christianity to all of Scotland, and it is reported that he vanquished a terrible, mysterious sea creature at a lake called Ness (which may explain why the Loch Ness Monster hasn’t been found).
When Columba died, like his forefather and foremother, his remains were transported back to Downpatrick where he too was laid to rest. These three Irish saints – Patrick, Brigid, and Columba – living in succession, represent the heart of what has been called “Celtic Christianity.” This is more than a geographical designation. It is a humble, simple, form of faith. It is Christianity that never united with power, with the Empire, with violence or manipulation.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine “converted” to Christianity, the cross, which had been the suffering symbol of a crucified rabbi, became a crusading tool of military and ethnic conquest. A culture was “Christianized,” not so much when it conformed to the words and ways of Jesus, but when it bowed before the Emperor. Thus, most of Western Europe was “converted” at the end of a sword (as were Europe’s colonies), but Patrick chose a different way.
He came in humility, simplicity, and vulnerability. He came as a servant, with honesty, authenticity, treating others with dignity and respect. Rather than forcing faith on people, he lovingly met them where they were, and never used the cross or faith as a weapon. Celtic Christianity sounds much like what Jesus intended for his first disciples, and we who follow him today, would do well to return to that path.
Photo by Adrian Moran
I have had the opportunity to walk the famed Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Suffering.” This was the path walked by Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem on the morning as he headed to the cross. It’s not a lengthy route, half of a mile, from Rome’s Antonia Fortress to the execution site called Golgotha.
But what the walk lacked in distance, it more than made up for in intensity. Jesus carried his cross, at least the crossbeam portion, through narrow streets no wider than a modern urban alley. Onlookers and morning shoppers would have been so close to him, they could have reached out and touched him, his blood and sweat splattering on them as he went.
Roman soldiers, ablaze in red tunics and freshly polished armor, were constantly pushing the execution party onward. Cursing, kicking, sadistically laughing at the victims, jabbing and prodding with their spears from time to time.
Jesus would have been a mess, a bloody spectacle, which is exactly what the Romans would have wanted. They used these parades of brutality as a propaganda tool, a form of malicious advertising: “This is what we do to rebels in our Empire. This is what we do to those who refuse our authority and go against the grain,” they were saying.
So it was, that no one being sent to his or her crucifixion could do so with so much as a shred of dignity or subtlety. The one crucified was a marked man, a marked woman, and could not mask this fact by hiding in the crowd. Presciently, Jesus made this point to his would-be followers multiple times.
He turned to the massive crowds following him around the countryside, and speaking like the prophet he was, not the politician they hoped he would be, he challenged them. “If you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple,” he said.
This is a hard statement, shocking to the senses. Jesus was demanding – and “demanding” is the correct word – clarity. By means of a rhetorical confrontation, he was informing would-be followers that their beliefs, values, and direction should match those of the one they claimed to follow, and that it was a path that led, quite obviously, to the giving of one’s total self.
This challenge remains relevant today, for much that is called “Christian,” isn’t. It is nationalism mixed with capitalism. It is sanctified narcissism and naked ambition. It is crass moralizing and the baptizing of individualistic, white middle-class respectability. It is impulsively saying “God Bless America” in tough times, and applauding the empty pageantry of a few “prayer” breakfasts.
Jesus lived and taught humility, justice, mercy, peace, and generosity. He was marked – in life and death – by forgiveness, grace, and sacrificial, unselfish love. We can’t take his values, and organized ourselves in the opposite direction, and call it “Christian,” for a culture wearing a cross around its neck, is not necessarily walking the path of the cross.
Photo by Ronnie McBrayer