Thursday, March 17, 2011

Don't Drink the Green Beer

Beannachtai na Feile Padraig obhair! [lit. "St. Patrick's Day blessings be upon you]

I'm interrupting my "preventing plagiarism" series to pass along my wishes for a happy St. Patrick's Day, and to offer some advice as to how you can best celebrate the holiday.

First, remember that our modern English word "holiday" is a compound that derives from "holy day," the designation given in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar to days set aside for feasts (commemorations of the lives of saints or of important events in Christian history) or fasts. Celebrating the life of a saint with a feast is a carryover from the early Christian tradition of holding a community meal at the saint's tomb on the anniversary of his/her death, to hold up his/her life as an example and to remind the assembled company that Christians who have departed this world are still a part of the Church. It is, therefore, appropriate to enjoy a special meal on St. Patrick's Day, and to read accounts of his life and work. It is not, however, appropriate to drink to excess and behave in an immoral manner simply because the folks at Hallmark and other retailers are selling St. Patrick's Day merchandise. If you're not Christian, you probably aren't interested in the work that St. Patrick is remembered for, anyway, unless you're a history buff.

Second, although it is appropriate to enjoy a special meal, may I urge you not to choose corned beef and cabbage and (God help us all) green beer? The traditional Irish feast-day meal includes potatoes and cabbage (OK, so most Irish meals contain potatoes and cabbage...) and what I can only describe as a slab of unsliced bacon boiled in water and/or beer. Corned beef came to be associated with Irish cuisine only after Irish immigrants began arriving in this country. The bacon that they were accustomed to eating was nowhere to be found here, and corned beef brisket was the nearest equivalent. I suppose this fact itself makes corned beef and cabbage an acceptable St. Patrick's Day meal in America, but these days you can get almost any comestible anywhere in the world, and I'm a traditionalist. If you wish to add soda bread to your feast, choose a plain white or wheat loaf--NO RAISINS. Soda bread should contain flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk (and possibly baking powder, although this one is debatable) and nothing else. No eggs, butter (except that which the consumer spreads on the slices before eating), or sugar--these ingredients were considered too luxurious in the Old World for daily use and only became common additions when the Irish immigrants found themselves in a better economic position. Adding raisins or currants to breads does have precedent, but the resulting bread is properly styled a scone or tea cake. And, please, don't get me started on the subject of green beer. Just do yourself a favor and stick to the unadulterated kind.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, take some time to remember the life of St. Patrick himself. Scholars these days debate almost every facet of his life--including the question of whether or not he really existed (although it's a minority view)--but the person we think of on this day is remembered for bringing Christianity to the people of Ireland on a wide scale. Although a foreigner, he learned the Irish tongue (no easy task, I assure you) and explained the gospel to the people in terms that resonated with them (the story about the shamrock, is, alas, legend), and by appealing to their leaders to convert. He encouraged those who converted to enter into religious (i.e. monastic, although the early Irish version of this is different from what we think of as monasticism) life, and he went to great lengths to ransom Christians who had been taken captive in the slave trade. He also chastised the slavers themselves and urged them to find other ways of earning a living.

You may not be called to foreign missions, but on this feast day, I'll bet there is some aspect of St. Patrick's life and work that can spur you on to greater things. Is there a cross-cultural bridge that you can begin to build in your workplace, school, or community? Is there a work of social justice (yes, I know that's a loaded term) that you can get involved with? Is there someone who needs to hear the gospel in a way that you can explain? Think about it--and please, don't drink the green beer.

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