St Patrick's breastplate is a remarkable hymn. It is a tremendous call to follow Paul's exhortation to “put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10 – 18). Patrick put on this Trinitarian armor in the face of human-sacrificing Druids, wizards, deadly tyrants, and worst of all, “the heart's idolatry.”
Despite its nine verse length, it is worthy of congregational singing. I have heard Presbyterian churches sing verses 1-7 as the opening hymn and then close with verses 8-9 as the benediction hymn. Ending the service singing,
“Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me...”
This magnificent hymn reflects the life and faith of Patrick. The original hymn, the Lorica of St. Patrick (meaning breastplate or armor) is found in the Book of Armagh. Historian Philip Schaff says it is “called S. Patricii Canticum Scotticum, which Patrick is said to have written when he was about to convert the chief monarch of the island (Laoghaire or Loegaire)” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church IV, 49). The metrical hymn version is a translation of the ancient Irish hymn by Mrs. Cecil Francis Alexander, wife of the Anglican Bishop of Londenderry, Ireland (1889).
It is helpful to know more about Patrick to appreciate some of the lyrics of
this masterful hymn.
The exact dates of his life are not certain, but about 390 – 461. His day has been memorialized as a Feast Day in the West on March 17. We know of the revelry of this green day, but we should know more of the Patron Saint of Ireland.
He was the son of a Romano-British Christian kidnapped from his home in Scotland at 16 to be a slave in Ireland. He escaped to Gaul where he became a monk and then devoted his life to go back to the place of his captivity to bring them the gospel.
He knew the free grace of God which comes through faith in Christ. He wrote in his Confessio,
"I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many...I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people....And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that,
even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew Him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and He protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son. Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favors and graces has the Lord
deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity."
Enjoy some corned beef and cabbage; soda bread, potatoes or fish and chips; tea and scones and celebrate the grace of another story of one who lived boldly for our Lord.
Happy St. Patrick's Day!