Happy Saint Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick was not Irish. He did not single-handedly convert all the Irish people to Christianity, nor did he drive snakes out of Ireland. He was not a bishop and probably was not a monk, although he supported the establishment of monasteries in Ireland. His day was not a major celebration in Ireland until recently, when the customs of Irish communities in other parts of the world were carried back to Ireland.

Patrick was British, born and raised in Britain in the years after the Roman Empire had withdrawn its forces from the island to deal with matters closer to home. When he was a boy, Patrick was captured by pirates and sold as a slave to an Irish master, who kept Patrick for six years. After that time Patrick escaped, returned home, and apparently also spent some time living in a monastery in Gaul (now France). He felt a strong call to return to Ireland and serve there as a missionary. Patrick did not set out on his own; he was sent as a missionary of the church and received support for his work. While he was not even the first Christian missionary sent to Ireland, he has become the most famous. The strength of Christianity in Ireland during the following centuries led to the re-evangelism of Britain and Gaul after those lands had been overrun by pagan Germanic tribes.

During the 1800s, many Irish people fled their homeland for political and economic reasons. Coming to North America, they faced the same problems most immigrants face. They were viewed suspiciously as “un-American” by their neighbors, in large part because of their Roman Catholic beliefs. As a result, they banded together, helped one another find jobs and dwellings, built churches, and tried to teach their children Irish language and customs. They chose March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day (the anniversary of the missionary’s death in 461), as an opportunity to maintain their cultural identity. Over time, as they became increasingly part of the American fabric, their celebrations drew in community leaders, especially politicians. Saint Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations in Chicago, Boston, New York, and even cities like Little Rock and Hot Springs, are a highlight of this time of year.

What are we celebrating? Some people view the day only as an opportunity to drink beer or whiskey. Others use it to participate in cultural events. Christians can also use this day to think of missionaries and of the mission opportunities we have in the world today. As Patrick willingly returned to the place where he had once been a slave to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so today also Christians share the freedom and forgiveness that belongs to us through Christ. J.

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Augustine of Hippo

August 28 is the day Augustine of Hippo is remembered, since he died on that date in the year 430. Augustine was a pastor in North Africa who was also a prolific writer. His literary production helped to guide the thinking and history of Christianity during and after his lifetime.

Augustine’s mother was Christian, but first he did not follow her example of faith. He learned Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, and then he toyed with the religion called Manichaeism, a blend of Christian concepts and Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia. Augustine wavered at the edge of Christian faith for several years, being encouraged by other Christian writers such as Ambrose to put his trust in Christ. When he finally did become a Christian, Augustine brought his learning from Latin philosophy and culture into the service of Christianity. His writings helped to shape medieval church thinking as well as later generations—both Martin Luther and John Calvin were heavily influenced by Augustine’s works.

In his Confessions, Augustine not only admits to his youthful indiscretions (among them, that he fathered a child without being married), but he also confesses his faith in God and in the teachings of the Christian Church. Instead of writing an autobiography, Augustine uses the events of his past life as an outline to proclaim the doctrines of Christianity and to celebrate the greatness of God. In his The City of God, Augustine discusses the dual citizenship held by every Christian. We are citizens of an earthly country, subject to an earthly government which we obey out of reverence for Christ, since that early authority represents his ultimate authority. At the same time, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. If we truly honor our heavenly citizenship, we will not despair over the troubles of our earthly city. (This was written at a time when German tribes were entering the Roman Empire and threatening even its strongest western cities.) God hears our prayers about earthly things and answers those prayers according to his good will. He is more concerned, though, about preserving our faith, which is our guarantee to a home in his eternal city.

Many of Augustine’s sermons, Bible commentaries, and letters have been preserved. Augustine firmly defended the inerrancy and reliability of the Bible. He clearly and repeatedly stressed the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ. He spent much of his time defending Christian truth against the attacks of Manicheans, Donatists, and Pelagians. (Spellcheck thinks those last two ought to be dentists and pelicans, but Augustine had no trouble with either of those.) We know more about these heresies from Augustine’s replies to them than from their own writings. This is true, not because of any conspiracy of church leaders to destroy all evidence of alternate forms of Christianity. It is true because Christians saw no need to copy and preserve documents whose errors had already been rejected through the application of Scripture by writers such as Augustine.

Manicheans, as stated earlier, tried to blend Christianity with Zoroastrianism. Both religions were monotheistic, believing in only one God. Both called for members to lead a moral and upright life. Both promised heavenly rewards for those who were good and a punishment of eternal fire for those who were evil. Yet, as Augustine showed, the Manicheans erred by depicting good and evil as roughly equal in power. They erred by teaching that each individual determined his own eternal destiny by good works or by evil works. Their errors limited the power of God, who is stronger than all evil, and who works the miracle of faith in the hearts of his people, calling him to them and moving them by his power rather than making them earn salvation through their own good works.

Donatists claimed to be the only true Christians, even though their movement only existed in parts of Africa. They rebaptized any Christian who joined them from another congregation. Augustine affirmed that the true Church is found wherever Christians gather around God’s Word, trusting in Christ for salvation. No splinter group can claim for itself the label of the only true Church on earth. He recognized that Baptism is valid even if performed by a heretic or unbeliever. The power of Baptism is not in the identity of the person performing the act, but in the promises of Christ himself.

Pelagians said that all human beings are basically good at heart, and that the goodness within us draws us to Christ and his salvation. They taught that even non-believers could please God by performing good works. Augustine used the Bible to show that no one can please God in any way other than salvation through Jesus Christ. No work is acceptable to God if it is not done through faith in Christ. Rather than trusting some internal goodness to draw one to God, a Christian celebrates the gift of God which grants saving faith and keeps him or her in that saving faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Augustine is a saint worth remembering and celebrating. His writing shaped Christianity, not by changing it into something new, but by preserving the message of the Bible and the historic teachings of the Church. On this day that commemorates Augustine, Christians thank God for his leadership and his wisdom. J.

Twelve drummers drumming

With the setting of the sun and the observance of Twelfth Night, the season of Christmas comes to an end. During this time we have celebrated the birth of our Savior, we have started a new year, and we have considered some of the saints who the Lord has blessed and through whom he has blessed his Church. I hope that my tour with you of the twelve days of Christmas has been helpful and meaningful for you. If you have never observed these twelve days before, I urge you to consider doing so next winter. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night! J.

Eleven pipers piping

Elizabeth Seaton is described as the first saint native to the United States, although of course many thousands of saints were living in the United States when the new nation first declared its independence. Raised as an Episcopalian, Elizabeth married and had five children before being widowed at the age of twenty-eight. After joining the Roman Catholic Church, she founded the American Sisters of Charity, dedicated to helping the poor and to teaching children.

Saints do not become saints by living better lives than other people. God is not content with “better than average.” He demands perfection. Saints become saints by faith in Jesus Christ. Through his perfection, we saints are seen as perfect by God the Father, because he sees us through his Son and therefore calls us his children. Having been forgiven and made holy by Jesus, saints now strive to live as children of God. We try to match the perfection of Jesus. We still fall short, of course, but we are also still forgiven. We remain perfect in the eyes of God the Father.

Like Elizabeth Seaton, we can dedicate our energies to helping the poor who live in our midst. Like Elizabeth Seaton, we can use our energy to teach others what they need to know—especially the victory of Jesus Christ and his promises to rescue us and claim us for his kingdom. If we are saints, then we should act like saints, bringing glory to God’s name and drawing our neighbors to learn more about the hope that we have in Christ. J.

The Festival of All Saints

The early people of Europe, both Celtic and Germanic, observed a holiday roughly halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. Known by various names, this holiday was inspired by the fact that nights were getting longer, days were getting shorter, and nature was shutting down to prepare for the winter. Dark thoughts inspired images of ghosts, goblins, witches, and other monsters and fearful beings. Christian missionaries working among the Celtic and Germanic people countered with a Christian holiday, the Festival of All Saints. With this festival, Christians remind themselves and others that we do not need to fear ghosts and monsters, that the spirits of believers who have died are safely with Jesus in Paradise, and that the work of Jesus has conquered evil in all its forms.

A message being passed around Facebook claims that the Christian holiday is older, that Christians were celebrating the Festival of All Saints on the first of November long before Halloween became an observance on the thirty-first of October. Technically, this is true, since Christians were using the Julian calendar of the Roman Empire while Celts and Germans were still using a lunar calendar. Only rarely would their annual festival come the night before All Saints’ Day, but the festival of darkness and evil beings was being observed in Europe long before Christians began the Festival of All Saints.

Who was first in marking this time of year does not matter as much as whose observance is more significant. Let the creation of All Saints’ Day be a Christian response to the pagan observances that have become Halloween. The message about all the saints is still more meaningful than any message about ghosts and goblins. All Saints’ Day is a reminder of Easter on the far side of the calendar. Jesus is still risen, and all who trust in him are still rescued from death and the grave and are protected from every kind of evil.

Who, then, is a saint? Every believer in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is a saint. Peter and Paul wrote letters addressed to saints, not addressed to spirits with Christ in Paradise, but addressed to Christians still living on the earth. It is customary on All Saints’ Day to think of those saints who have died and who are waiting for the Day of Resurrection; but for Christians alive on earth, this is our day too. We remember that we are saints, not because of what we have done for Jesus, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

Saints are holy people. Anything that is holy is the property of God. God’s name is holy, because it belongs to him (and Christians pray that God’s name be holy, or hallowed, among us). Times set aside for worship are holy times, because they belong to God. Places where Christians gather for worship are holy, because they belong to God. When Moses stood on holy ground—ground that belonged to God—he was told to remove his shoes so that common everyday dirt would not be tracked onto God’s holy dirt.

Holy people are also meant to be different from other people. Holy people are meant to be reminders of Jesus. We are different from other people because we love God and try to obey his commands. We are different from other people because we love our neighbors and seek to help them for the glory of God. Christians do not always succeed at this business of holiness. If we had to make ourselves holy, we would be total failures. But we do not make ourselves holy. Jesus makes us holy by his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus makes us holy through the gifts of his Church. Jesus makes us holy by claiming us as his own people.

What then of Halloween? Christians are free to observe Halloween or not as it suits them, provided they do not offend one another by their celebrations. Christians who want to give out free candy on Halloween are free to do so; those who do not wish to share candy do not have to share. Christian parents can send their children out to receive free candy or can find other things for them to do on that night. For some Christians, Halloween is a grim reminder of the evil from which they have been freed, and they would rather not think about evil at all. For other Christians, Halloween is a time to laugh at evil, our defeated enemy, and to celebrate the freedom we have received through Christ.

Christmas trees and Easter eggs and Halloween jack-o-lanterns might distract some people from the promises of Christ, but they are also fitting reminders of the promises of Christ. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and therefore anything in creation can be used to celebrate his love. Have a blessed Festival of All Saints this weekend, and also a happy Halloween. J.