For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,
‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles,
so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’
~ Acts 13:47 (NRSV)
Saint Patrick is a Christian figure who floats into and out of our consciousness from the mists of time, and of legend. He’s associated with Ireland, and the day is an observance that has a pretty spectacular secular association, but the good saint and bishop didn’t convert water into green beer.
Patrick was a victim of slavery and oppression who chose not only to forgive his captors, but to commit his life and ministry to their benefit. Patrick, in short, wasn’t Irish. It was Irish pirates who captured and sold him, and it was from his home in England and his adopted land of France where he was trained for ministry, out of which he dedicated his life to return to the Emerald Isle.
That’s a tough calling to fulfill. We have only fragments to tell us about how Patrick must have wrestled with God over this call, to go to the place he had escaped, and work for the good of those who had hurt him. It may be enough to know that someone can, with God’s grace, do such a thing.
How to forgive people who have hurt you, and in many cases are unrepentant, is a pastoral question that has no short or easy answers. And it’s a process of recovery and redemption that you can’t just pretty up with a few shamrocks and green hats. There’s no happy veneer of “yeah, it’s in the past, let it go” which can really hide the pain. Some victims never hear an apology, and some offenders never really do get it. “Avoid them” is the cop-speak answer; “give them over to God” is a faith response that’s accurate, if incomplete.
And surely we’re not all called to be Patricks, or even to be Jesus. We have our own mission fields to find, our own crosses to bear. What the essence of St. Patrick offers, as a gift for us in Lent, is the way his choice to accept his missionary field shows how forgiveness and reconciliation and redemption are all necessary parts of the work of mission. If you engage in any mission or ministry worth doing, you will encounter injustice and pain, sorrow and suffering, and yes, even evil. Some of that encounter will evoke for you parts of your own history that has brought you to the present moment; sometimes it does seem as if God uses our experiences to bring Good News into the world to help us deal with our own unhealed wounds.
If we are to be bearers of good news, which is what evangelist means in the original Greek, just someone carrying word that others need to hear, we have to be ready to face those obstacles. If our buttons get pushed by the bad news we’re pushing back against, we can find ourselves trapped in a cycle of reaction, stuck in recriminations even inside our own heads, turned aside by past fears that make present challenges loom larger than they are. Henri Nouwen famously asked us to consider “the wounded healer” in all of us, and how we are often called to be healed in the midst of healing work we’re doing for others . . . and they can’t be separated.
With God’s help, Patrick dealt with his own pain, and ministered not just through it but used it to empower a ministry to Ireland that likely no one else could have done as well. We can try to follow Jonah, Patrick’s opposite, and run in the opposite direction as far as we can from our own call, but the Book of Jonah lets us know that our need for healing will travel with us. The Feast of St. Patrick tells us that our hurts can be healed, and our wounds might be a way others can see the journey we’ve taken, and why we are willing to be vulnerable in the places the Gospel puts us today.
Oh, and Slàinte to you!
Pastor, Newark Central Christian Church