Today we celebrate the feast of St. Patrick, the missionary to the Irish. He is one of the great examples of the Great Commission in action.
Patrick was born in the late 4th century in Roman Britain around 390. At this time, the Western Roman Empire was beginning to crumble under the pressures of the Germanic tribes to the east and a resurgence of Celtic tribes to the north. (Rome itself would be sacked by Alaric the Goth in 410.) Roman Britain was under threat of the Picts, a Celtic tribe from modern-day Scotland. The Picts would carry out seaborn raids on Roman settlements. When Patrick was 16, he was kidnapped by the Picts and sold into slavery to an Irish lord and put in charge of taking care of his animals. It was during this time in 406 when Rome pulled its legions out of Britain to protect Gaul and Italy from the Germanic tribes.
In his autobiography, Patrick tells us that he was not a religious boy. However, the bodily and psychological hardship of slavery turned his mind to Christ. Like the Israelites in Egypt, all Patrick knew to do was to pray and to call out to God for deliverance.
After six years of slavery, Patrick heard a voice speak to him in a dream leading him to escape. He traveled two hundred miles and obtained free passage on a ship leaving Ireland. Eventually, Patrick made it back to his family.
Patrick pursued a religious education in Gaul and was ordained a priest and eventually a bishop. At the age of 45, Patrick had a dream of “all the children of Ireland from their mothers’ wombs stretching out their hands” to him. Patrick received the blessing of Pope Leo the Great and set off to evangelize those who had once enslaved him. Jesus tells us to love our enemies; Patrick takes it one step further and evangelizes them.
Patrick travels to Ireland and begins his work. He travels throughout the Island preaching, baptizing, and disciplining. He ordains priests, organizes Ireland into dioceses, organizes church councils, founds several monasteries, and continually urges his people to greater holiness in Christ. Like Paul to the Thessalonians, Patrick was gentle among them, like a nurse caring for her own children.
Patrick establishes his Cathedral in the northern Irish city of Armagh where the Primates of all Ireland (one Roman and one Anglican) still sit today.
The fruits of Patrick’s missionary endeavor are extraordinary. Within a century, Ireland itself begins to send out missionaries itself, and as the West collapses, its learning will be preserved in Irish monasteries. Throughout the early Middle Ages, the Irish Church was the center of Western learning and the primary source of missionaries throughout Europe. Irish monasteries could be found from northern Portugal, northern Italy, throughout Gaul and Germany, and even east to Kyiv. Patrick taking the gospel into Ireland blossomed into the gospel being spread throughout all of Europe itself.
In his carrying out the Great Commission, Patrick had to explain the Trinity. Who is the “Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” into which his converts would be baptized? The Nicene Creed can be understood if someone is a Greek-speaking Neoplatonist, but how to describe the Trinity to an unread, unlearned, polytheistic people?
Patrick uses the tools at hand. Shamrocks grow throughout Ireland. The question Patrick asks is whether a shamrock is three or one? There are three leaves, but only one plant. And so is God – three but one.
Too often in our churches we think that we can explain God, like a biologist can explain an animal or a physicist can explain his theories. We recite words such as person and substance as if God can be placed on a dissecting table and we can study his constituent parts. The reality, however, is that the Creed and a Shamrock are both equally good and equally inadequate explanations of the mystery of the Trinity. God is ineffable, and sometimes it is easier to grasp the ineffable through a simple, natural, example and not great philosophical terminology.
And what we learn from Patrick, is that no one is off-limits to the Great Commission and that in carrying out the Great Commission, we must speak to people where they are, using their language, and their idioms, and their examples to make God real to them.
What do you see – three or one?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.