Not only is there no evidence of a snake infestation in Ireland during the fifth century, there is evidence that strongly affirms that there were absolutely no snakes at all for Patrick to drive out during the time he was helping to establish Christianity on the island.
Don’t worry, you can still eat your corned beef and cabbage.
The snakes to which the tale about Saint Patrick refers are the serpent-worshipping druids who were expunged from Ireland as Christianity grew.
“Thanks for the stone formations, now kindly leave.”
Despite the mythology that surrounds St. Patrick, many of us will spend time today toasting to Irish heritage. And even those with no connection to Ireland will celebrate, sometimes in excess, this holiday—usually with hardly any reference to Patrick’s work as a leader of the church.
Though not uniquely American, it is funny how the birth of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the death of saints like Valentine and Patrick, and many other Christian holy days have taken on incredibly popular and expensive significance for people with all kinds of religious affiliations—including those with no religious affiliation.
Even in this time of disillusionment with religious institutions, the level of commitment to these holidays seems unwavering.
Perhaps even more remarkably, I continually find that although most people I encounter outside of church have no religious affiliation, they are more than willing to share with me their own theological reflections, their positive impressions of Jesus, and their appreciation for the things that churches are capable of accomplishing.
This should tell us at least three things:
One, that people in general are doing the holy work of making meaning of this world and this life.
Two, that people are open to honest conversations with people of faith, especially when they happen on a level playing field (i.e. not in a church building).
And three, that as Christians we may not be doing a very good job of being truthful about what faith actually looks like in real life. Because if we are honest, faith has little to do with believing a list of statements, with understanding the Bible as factual history or with never having any doubts.
Abram, a founder of our Judeo-Christian faith, shows us that God is willing to make a Covenant with all of creation not by virtue of its merit—or of Abram’s—but simply because God desires to make something special of creation. Keep in mind that at this point in the story, Abram is not some pious wisdom figure. He is actually kind of a problematic character who recently instructed his wife Sarai to pretend to be his sister so that when the pharaoh took her as his wife, he wouldn’t kill Abram but would instead reward him for the exchange. Not only that, but in this very passage, Abram is found complaining to God about his lack of an heir.
In the midst of this complaining, God makes promises to Abram of a whole progeny—his descendants will outnumber the stars in the sky, and through them “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Abram does not earn this reward; it is a gift, and the deal is sealed with this late-night torch ceremony that God enacts while Abram is asleep.
The covenant is not a mutual agreement; it is a gift from God to someone whose prayer life has been composed of complaints. And following the establishment of the covenant, Abram continues to argue with God. His grandson Jacob literally wrestles with God, taking the name “Israel” which of course means “wrestles with God.” The people of Israel then wrestle with the God who liberates them as they wander the desert for forty years.
The Bible is full of stories of people who wrestle and argue and scream at and curse God, but the reason we lift them up is because in them we see ourselves. We see both our disappointments and our yearnings. We see our broken hearts and our hopefulness. We see the nightmarish things people do to one another, and we see how God, through the prophets calls us to something more.
It’s understandable that we would want God to be a superhero who swoops in and saves the day, healing our wounds, rescuing people from natural disasters, eliminating evils like war, hunger, and poverty, and extinguishing the kind of violence we saw in the white supremacist act of terror in Christchurch, New Zealand.
In the stories of Jesus, we see someone who calls out these evils, who bemoans violence and poverty, and who holds leaders accountable. In Jesus, we see someone who does come into local communities to save the day for some. He manifests wine for the wedding, he raises the dead, and he heals the lepers.
Jesus does all of these things and more, but afterward the world keeps turning, operating as it always had. The wine runs out, Lazarus eventually dies for good, and leprosy is even still a thing in 2019. As Robert Capon puts it, the miracles of Jesus were not programs for fixing up history…they were signs of the significance of what Jesus accomplishes in Jerusalem—namely his death, and after three days, his resurrection.
Luke’s Jesus knows that his role is bigger than the healing work that is keeping him from worrying about Herod’s pettiness. “On the third day,” Jesus says, “I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way…” Then Jesus laments his unrequited desire to gather everyone together as a mother hen gathers her brood.
He wants everyone to be groovy, like now, but Jesus is not just some teacher, not merely some traveling medic, and not only an inspirational speaker or powerful political voice. He is all of those things, and he’s even a revolutionary prophet, but the Christian claim is that Jesus is something more. The Christian claim is that in Jesus we see what God is like; we see something true about God and, thus, something true about ourselves.
Because of Jesus, we believe that God is intimately involved in our lives: We see that God is as close and accessible as he was with Abram. We see that God challenges us, as she did while wrestling with Jacob. We see that God liberates us, as they did with the people of Israel.
Because of Jesus, we believe that God is inexorably drawn to us as Jesus was to Jerusalem, and that God laments when we hurt each other. Even though our violence does not surprise God, God laments over the same things we do. God laments over every shooting, every bomb, and every act of terror. God laments when we hurt ourselves, too.
Because of Jesus, we believe that God keeps the promises made at the beginning of everything—the promise to give the possibility of life to a world that often seems trapped by death.
And when Jesus dies, he leaves behind a community that proclaims resurrection. That empty tomb is a love note from God to the world that says that death does not have the final word.
God calls us to a faithful life—not faithful to one way of worship, one way of observing feast days, or one dogmatic way of believing. God calls us to lives that are faithful to their inherent value, lives that are faithful to the One who brought them to be, and lives that seek the way of the One who showed us how to live—the way of peace and freedom…the way of that wondrous love of Jesus Christ.