Thursday, March 10, 2005

Faith Works 03-19-05
By Jeff Gill

[note: this did not appear in print, since the Atlanta hostage incident with Ashley Smith and the Purpose Driven Life story kind of overrode events; i wrote a new column seen above, and this exists only here...but enjoy anyhow! jbg]

A Children’s Sermon For Grown-ups

Now that the flood of green beer has crested, and the “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” buttons put back at the bottom of the sweater drawer, we can talk about Saint Patrick. Not the winkin’ wee feller of St. Paddy’s Day, but the good missionary bishop himself, and that hunk of Emerald Isle landscape in his hand.
“The Wearin’ o’ the Green,” with or without the pinch penalty (hope you checked workplace guidelines on sexual harassment before you tried that on anyone last week) is part of the adoptive Irishness that has trickled down to the wholesale embrace of “Celtic spirituality,” a broad table with an assortment of dishes set out, not many of which would Bishop Patrick recognize a millennium and a half ago.
Shamrock symbolism for the day and place and person is a good quick identifier, like pumpkins for Hallowe’en and fireworks for the Fourth of July. We’ve come to associate it with Ireland as a whole, in tourism ads or decorating the margins of our family tree from County Sligo.
What Patrick first plucked a shamrock for was to make a point, and a difficult one at that, one that has challenged Christian teachers and preachers for many an age. He held up the lowly green ground cover to make three points, or maybe three points in one.
What the good bishop was trying to get across to his pagan and Druid listeners was what Christians meant when they said they believed in “One God, not many” but could also call Jesus “truly God and truly human,” and, oh yes, there was this “Holy Spirit” authentically divine as well.
OK, said the Irish. So you worship three gods, which is fine by us; many do. No, no, answered Patrick, we worship God in three persons, a blessed Trinity, where the eternal Oneness of God is manifested in three. . .
And then Patrick saw the shamrock.
Aside from general theological illiteracy, a big reason for folks here and now not knowing the religious roots of the shamrock symbol is that we point at our common clover as the closest analogy (and look for luck in the four leaf variety, just as they did in the Auld Sod for four leaf shamrocks).
But clover is three distinct leaflets off of a central stem. Shamrocks were a, well, God-send for Patrick because they look like three leaves until you consider them up close and personal. A true shamrock is actually one leaf, with divisions between the three lobes so deep that they look like three different sections. Careful observation, instead of a casual glance, shows that the shamrock is in fact one coherent, connected, unified leaf.
Thus, Patrick to-be-saint would have said, is our understanding of the inner relationships of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From a distance, three distinct forms and roles; draw near, and see and feel the oneness.
Town after town, county after county, king after king heard Patrick’s shamrock theology talk about Christianity, and asked for baptism. This way of understanding the doctrine of the Trinity became so attached to the Irish Church that the shamrock became the symbol of the whole island.
And may the road rise to meet all those preparing for baptism this Easter season, and may the gentle wind be at everyone’s back, Irish or not.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio. If you have other ethnic faith traditions to share, e-mail

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