St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, was born in the late fourth century in Roman Britain, maybe Wales. That makes him British. Irish pirates kidnapped him when he was a teenager and after six years he escaped.
During his enslavement in Ireland young Patrick’s faith deepened (he was a “preacher’s kid,” being the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest). After studying in Europe and becoming a priest, Patrick returned to Ireland for 33 years as a missionary. Sometimes it is difficult to separate legend and history, but it is safe to say that Patrick was one of the greatest missionaries of all time. Britain has given Ireland precious few good gifts, but Patrick certainly was one of them.
Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans (Episcopalians) venerate him. His feast is March 17, which falls during Lent when the faithful are supposed to be fasting and engaged in acts of self-denial. But most bishops have the good sense to relax Lenten disciplines that day. So it’s probably okay to have a beer. I’m going to have a Guinness.
Just eight days after we celebrate St. Patrick we enter Holy Week, which commemorates the events that led to the crucifixion of Jesus. Not all Christians celebrate Holy Week, but those who do experience through their worship what divine love looks like when Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross. Withholding nothing, Jesus took the nails we deserved.
Robert Webber, an Evangelical theologian and writer I got to know during my Chicago days, would have his Wheaton College students attend Roman Catholic and Episcopal liturgies during Holy Week. With few exceptions, he said, the experience enriched them spiritually and made Easter in their own churches more special for them. Easter without Holy Week strikes me as incomplete. Life is not all joy. There are some things you cannot go over, go around, or go under. You have to go through them. To get to Easter you need to go through Holy Week.
April Fools' Day and Easter
What a strange calendar year. Ash Wednesday was on Valentine’s Day and now Easter will be on April 1 (April Fools' Day). The last time this happened was 1945. April Fools' Day, of course, is about jokes and pranks. How can that relate to Easter? Here’s one way.
Some Orthodox Christians have a tradition of getting together on Easter Monday to tell jokes and funny stories and to dance and dine. The supreme joke, of course, is how God pulled a big one on Old Scratch by raising Jesus from the dead. With the death of Jesus the devil thought he had finally defeated God and enslaved humanity in sin and death. In raising Jesus, God overturned sin and death just as the devil was licking his chops. The devil, C.S. Lewis wrote, hates being mocked. So, have some holy humor at his expense this Easter.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something about Billy Graham, the most influential preacher of the 20th century who died full of years last month. He introduced Christ to millions around the world and deepened the lives of millions more. His brand of Evangelical Christianity, while conservative, was not fundamentalism.
He cared less about denominational identity and doctrinal purity than knowing Jesus Christ as Savior. He was non-judgmental and trusting, even if sometimes naive among powerful political leaders, but always sincere. The Gallup organization listed him as “One of the Ten Most Admired Men in the World” an amazing 51 times.
As you might expect at his death, a lot of what is being said turns him into a stained glass saint. He would probably lead the protest again such Evangelical hagiography. Graham’s legacy is vast and complicated. Many of us appreciate how Graham avoided the narrow and negative path of many of his hard nosed compatriots.
To their dismay he said non-Christians might even be saved during a 1998 interview with Robert Shuler. "What God is doing today is calling people out of the world for His name. Whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the body of Christ because they've been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts they need something that they don't have and they turn to the only light they have and I think they're saved and they're going to be with us in heaven." That was Billy Graham at his best. Christ-centered but open to God’s stirrings in other souls.