Year B – Proper 22 – St. Patrick’s Breastplate

 

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. My congregation, All Saints Presbyterian, sings it with vigor. When we sing it, we sing verses 1-7 as our opening hymn and then close with verses 8-9 as the benediction hymn. We end our 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.”

Ireland was not part of the Roman empire, where the faith spread through the Roman order with significant Roman structures in the Church. “The church-history of Ireland is peculiar. It began with an independent catholicity (or a sort to semi-Protestantism), and ended with Romanism, while other Western countries passed through the reverse order…it was Christianized without bloodshed and independently of Rome….” (Schaff, 43). Patrick’s faith spread more under the auspices of monastic centers, rather than ecclesiastical structures. These monastic communities fostered deep piety, sometimes stringent discipline, but also brilliant learning. Many monks recited the Psalter on a daily basis. In fact the oldest written language discovered in Ireland is found in copies of the Psalter. Thus it was “the isle of saints and scholars” and was used greatly to preserve Western culture while Europe was being overrun by barbarians. Hence, this is How the Irish Saved Civilization (Thomas Cahill).

St. Patrick’s Breastplate

I bind unto myself today

The strong Name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same

The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this today to me forever

By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;

His baptism in Jordan river,

His death on Cross for my salvation;

His bursting from the spicèd tomb,

His riding up the heavenly way,

His coming at the day of doom

I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power

Of the great love of cherubim;

The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour,

The service of the seraphim,

Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,

The Patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls,

All good deeds done unto the Lord

And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today

The virtues of the star lit heaven,

The glorious sun’s life giving ray,

The whiteness of the moon at even,

The flashing of the lightning free,

The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,

The stable earth, the deep salt sea

Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today

The power of God to hold and lead,

His eye to watch, His might to stay,

His ear to hearken to my need.

The wisdom of my God to teach,

His hand to guide, His shield to ward;

The word of God to give me speech,

His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,

The vice that gives temptation force,

The natural lusts that war within,

The hostile men that mar my course;

Or few or many, far or nigh,

In every place and in all hours,

Against their fierce hostility

I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and whiles,

Against false words of heresy,

Against the knowledge that defiles,

Against the heart’s idolatry,

Against the wizard’s evil craft,

Against the death wound and the burning,

The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,

Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,

The strong Name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same,

The Three in One and One in Three.

By Whom all nature hath creation,

Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:

Praise to the Lord of my salvation,

Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

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