“Madness and vain cares…” A Sermon for St Patrick’s Day
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
A Sermon Preached at Evensong on the Eve of the Feast of St Patrick: March 16, 2013
by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut
Texts: I Thessalonians 2:2b-12; Matthew 28:16-20
Anthem: “Insanae et vanae curae” by Franz Joseph Haydn
May I speak in the Name of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“Madness and vain cares invade our minds, and fill our hearts with anger and hopelessness.”
That probably does not sound like an auspicious beginning to an Evensong homily. And yet I’m very glad that this fine choir sang those words a few moments ago. I’m very glad that those words have been paired with this occasion, with this feast: for this is the eve of the feast of St. Patrick.
You see, we don’t often think a lot about the madness and vain cares, the despair, and the pain and the violence that swirl in and through and around our lives. But St Patrick knew a lot about those things. St Patrick was born in the fifth century in the northern part of what is now called England. He and his family were Roman Britons. It’s likely that his father and grandfather were Christian clergymen. And there on the edge of the known world, Patrick’s family sought to maintain the lifestyle, sophistication, and decorum of Roman existence.
But they faced a grave challenge in their effort. In the decades before Patrick’s birth, the great and mighty legions that had for centuries advanced and defended the Roman Empire had been withdrawn to help defend the beleaguered city of Rome itself. So Patrick was born into a world striving to maintain order, and yet aware of chaos, danger and violence pressing in on all sides as barbaric tribes threatened Britain and as the wild and mysterious people of Ireland made raids on the coast of England.
So it was that at the age of sixteen, in the midst of one of those raids, Patrick was taken captive by the Irish and carried off a slave. The anthem that we have heard tonight may well be an appropriate approximation of what Patrick, sailing into the west as a captive, felt as he watched the world that he knew slip into the darkness behind him. We can imagine his fear and his horror. We can imagine his anger and his hopelessness. We can imagine even the madness crouched at the very door of his mind.
And yet our anthem did not end in madness and vain despair this evening. Our anthem did not end in the chaos and turmoil and darkness that can—and does—swirl in our lives and in our hearts. And neither did Patrick’s life end in slavery. After six years as a shepherd in Ireland, he escaped and made it home to his family and his country.
But neither is that escape—that flight from a world of chaos and darkness—the end of tonight’s story. If Patrick had stayed in his homeland, if he had remained in the safety of the world that he knew, we would not remember him this evening. What makes him memorable—what makes him remarkable—is that after returning home, after escaping captivity, after fleeing disorder and madness and vain cares, Patrick felt the call to return to Ireland: to go back to the people who had taken him captive, to give his life proclaiming the Gospel in their midst: leading them, as our collect puts it, out of “darkness and error into the true light and knowledge” of God.
The words at the end of our anthem point us in the direction of the life of St. Patrick. “What avails it, O mortals, to strive for worldly goods and neglect the heavenly ones? All things work for good if God is on your side.” Patrick learned this lesson. He knew that the madness and vain cares of this life could not be escaped by fleeing from them, but rather by stepping into them with the knowledge of God’s love surrounding and upholding us. He knew he could not escape the changes and chances of this world, but that if he embarked into those changes and chances—if he faced danger and perhaps even death itself for the sake of the Gospel—then indeed, all things would work for good. Or, better translated, God would be at work for His good in all things.
So it was that Patrick returned to the Irish people—his former captors, now his converts—to hold up for them the great sign and symbol, the true assurance that God is indeed on their side; that God is indeed on our side; that our God stands with all of humankind: Patrick preached to them Christ crucified, the God who dwelt among us and gave himself for us. And from his witness, by his preaching, through his tireless work, a nation was brought from darkness into light. And we gather here this evening to remember him.
Beloved, madness and vain cares may well invade our minds. Danger and hopelessness may well lurk in the corners of our hearts. And yet, we are called in every place in every time to live in the knowledge that in all things our God is at work. Thanks be to God for the witness of St Patrick. Thanks be to God for the singing of this choir in this place, this evening. Thanks be to God for the love that surrounds and upholds us: this, and every day.