By David Jones
This past weekend is normally northern Kansas City’s Snake Saturday.
It is a parade/carnival wherein a hodgepodge of participants stroll, ride or drive down the street to wave, throw candy, and otherwise just relish a chance to get out of the house. It’s loosely a small St. Patrick’s parade held the Saturday before the full-scale event downtown.
Despite her Catholic family upbringing, my wife looks forward to Snake Saturday even more than St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th, the traditional day of his death) because it’s a tradition developed around family and community and not religion. And Saint Patrick’s Day is chock full of religious tradition.
Saint Patrick isn’t a legitimately canonized saint because he lived long before the Catholic Church had developed their official process for bestowing sainthood. He (along with fellow pre-canon saints Nicholas and Valentine) was grandfathered in after the new policies began in 1234 CE.
Back in the fifth century if enough locals told tales of your piety and asked the local church head to recognize you as a saint, he could make, the decision himself.
Sainthood, by the way, is one of the great Catholic-Protestant divisions: in many Protestant lines, a saint is anyone who accepts Jesus and is born again through Holy Spirit. It’s like Archbishop Oprah running through a congregation going: “YOU get a sainthood, and YOU get a sainthood, and YOU…!”
But in the Catholic West and Orthodox East, sainthood is a much bigger deal. In some Jewish/Christian/Muslim traditions God is so completely perfect and alien that you can only approach Him through an intermediary or intercessor. Saints can be intercessors in some Christian and Islamic practices.
That means if you prayed for a particular blessing associated with that saint, especially using their icon, it was more likely that you’d “be heard” (i.e. get what you asked for) because saints were patrons for certain groups or causes (hence Patron Saint) and would petition God directly for them.
If you threw a St. Patrick’s Day party just for Irish folks, Saint Patrick couldn’t go because he wasn’t Irish. His family were Roman citizens (his surviving writings are in Latin) living in the occupied British Isles. At 16 he was kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland, tending sheep until he escaped.
In time he had dreams compelling him to return to Ireland to make converts. Despite growing up without much interest in religion and having little formal education he was fairly productive and soon there were many churches to his credit.
Today the trappings of St. Patrick’s Day are pretty far removed from his earlier Feast Day. Back then it was church service, prayer, and community worship. Now it’s beer, kissing, wearing green (and pinching anyone who isn’t), shamrocks, and leprechauns, things which would have utterly baffled Patrick. Let’s look at a few more facts.
Patrick’s struggle to evangelize the Emerald Isle wasn’t for lack of education but because the Celts were perfectly happy with their traditional religious beliefs, thank you very much, something the Church wanted eliminated. To that end they took many local symbols (like the shamrock), gave them a fresh coat of Christian paint, and voila! Cultural appropriation in the name of God.
The tradition of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland reminds me of a joke I heard growing up: a boy was blowing a whistle around the house when his mom confronted him.
“Do you have to make all that racket?”
“But mama, it keeps the rhinoceroses away.”
“Lord child, there aren’t any rhinoceroses around here.”
“I know! See how good it works?”
Patrick didn’t drive away any snakes because there weren’t any on the island to begin with. Of course, like the boy and his whistle, you could “prove” that it really did happen by asking “Well, you ain’t seen no snakes around here, have ya? Case closed.” So what’s the deal with St. Patrick and the snakes?
For early Christians snakes weren’t seen as reptiles but as Satanic stand-ins, ever since they read Genesis chapter 3. Driving out all the snakes was a metaphor for Christianity conquering the pagans of the land. Granted, paganism wasn’t expelled from the shores, but it made for a cool story.
A lesson for today.
Patrick was embarrassed by his lack of education, and he felt ill-equipped to follow his calling. In the same way, we might feel that our history, education, or circumstances make us unable to succeed in our efforts. But our success rests more on our passion, determination, persistence and dedication to our goals, as did his.
So as you put on your green, Kiss Me, I’m Irish shirt, pack your green beer and corned beef, and head out to a party to regale strangers with your lame Irish accent, take a moment to appreciate where your dreams lead you, and find the courage to go there.
Also, be safe and responsible out there. It’s a time for celebration and not catastrophe. Get a designated driver or look up free ride services available in your community, and be courteous to others so they can enjoy the festivities too.
Then wallop someone over the head with a shillelagh for insulting Notre Dame’s football team. You know, for authenticity.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Editor’s note: This piece was submitted before the quarantining began around our country and globally. Please be responsible and celebrate at home this year. <3
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