ST PATRICK Is the copatron of our Archdiocese and so today’s Lenten commemoration is observed as a Solemnity here in San Francisco (as in NYC). We usually hear of driving the snakes out of Ireland (there’s never been any snakes there…) but while miracles are cool, the proof of anyone’s sanctity is the life of the Spirit within them. We are fascinated by miracles: one might say distracted. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are boring. So we think about Patrick driving out the snakes. Sure, courage, peace, and wisdom, right… but snakes, bro! He also raised 33 people from the dead!
It’s the Spirit that makes this possible. The Catechism at ¶1831 says “The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are (1)wisdom, (2)understanding, (3)counsel, (4)fortitude, (5)knowledge, (6)piety, and (7)fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them.” The gifts of the Spirit come from the listing in Isaiah 11:1-2. The Latin text calls Number 4, fortitudo or fortitude and is sometimes rendered in listings as “courage”. Courage is usually acting in the face of fear. St Hilary of Poitiers says, “Fear in this ordinary sense is the trepidation our weak humanity feels when it is afraid of suffering something it does not want to happen. We are afraid, or are made afraid, because of a guilty conscience, the rights of someone more powerful, an attack from one who is stronger, sickness, encountering a wild beast, suffering evil in any form. This kind of fear is not taught: it happens because we are weak. We do not have to learn what we should fear: objects of fear bring their own terror with them.” (This is quoted from the Office of Readings for Thursday in the Second Week of Lent.) This makes no sense though for Patrick: what had he to be afraid of?
The Greek in the Septuagint doesn’t go there – to courage and fear. The Greek word for courage is τολμάω toma-o, meaning “to have courage, to be bold”. That’s not the word that gets used for fortitude though. The word that gets used is ἰσχύος iskhuos, a form of ἰσχύς iskhus. It means mighty or powerful. It is actually one of the titles of God in a prayer called the Trisagon, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” In the trinitarian reading of that prayer the second phrase is a Title of God the Son: “Holy Mighty”. So we’re not asking for “courage” so much as power or, better yet, “mightiness”.
What is that?
The Hebrew word in Isaiah 11:1 is גְּבוּרָה gevurah. It’s the same word used in the ending to the Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew. “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” All through the Old Testament gevurah is rendered as might, power, or strength. Even force. Not courage. God has a mighty hand and mighty acts. The sun has might. Might point in mentioning all this is that the gift of the spirit is not the idea of courage and no-fear. It’s mightiness, power. Even valor. (Remember: there’s another word for courage.)
The story is told of St Patrick kindling the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. The King had forbidden all fires to be light on the Spring Equinox until he lit his own on the hill of Tara. Patrick went ahead with his own fire – you know the blessing of the New Fire in the Easter Vigil! A druid remarked that if Patrick’s fire was not extinguished it would burn forever.
There are a couple of things wrong with the story, first off: the ancient Celts didn’t celebrate the equinoxes. In fact, very few cultures did: there were other days easier to note. That aside, the Easter Fire would not have been lit on the night before the Equinox (it would not have been Easter at that point). Easter is the First Sunday after the first full moon after the Equinox. The earliest possible date for Easter is 22 March. That’s the only date the Paschal and Equinox fires could have been on the same night. The only date in that time that Easter fell on 22 March was in 482 AD. That’s 20 years after Patrick died. (Sometimes the story mentions fires of Beltain or Bealtain, but that’s on 1 May – not at all around the date of Easter.)
SO… pagan festival fires aside what probably happened was the King forbade Patrick from celebrating Easter in public at all.
He lit the fire anyway (began the Vigil Mass, that is).
If Patrick was fearful (I doubt it) then it was a courageous act, but with or without fear the point is: it was mighty. It was powerful. It was a mighty act of power to light the Paschal Fires.
Christians are called to these acts of power, to these acts of might.
Mindful again that this word, might, is a title of God and a gift of the Holy Spirit, an actual definition of “might” here is not important. What constitutes a mighty act is not something that required God. It’s not a miracle, or something mytical or magical.
A Mighty Act is participating in what God is doing here and now. It’s meditating God’s presence in the present as a witness (martyr) to the salvation of those around you.
You are the body of Christ where you are, present and active. If you move under the direction of the Holy Spirit, in dialogue with God and those around you, your actions are mighty, filled with the Power of God.
Patrick’s action was mighty, was powerful, was filled with evangelistic zeal for the Irish Peoples, exactly because he was mediating the action of God in place in that time. Kindling the Fire was a hieratic action, being God in that place just as Moses was to Pharaoh, so Patrick was to Laoghaire (Leery). So you can be to those around you in the gift of Power. Your powerful actions can mediate God’s presence – which is love – to those around you, can draw others into God’s actions of salvation in their lives.
Be like Patrick and, robed in the Power of the Holy Spirit, light the first fires to draw others to God.