Today, officially, for the world-wide Church, the readings are for this Saturday in Lent. But for many of us Irish or Irish-Americans or Irish-somethings, this is St. Patrick’s feast day, which in our time in the United States is a notably secular celebration with parades and parties. Commercial interests produce greeting cards and party goods with green shamrocks or leprechaun hat motifs; taverns here in Omaha sell green beer (my husband and I have never tried it!), restaurants offer plates of corned beef and cabbage, and bakeries sell cake with green frosting.
The city of Boston, Massachusetts, has long celebrated March 17 as Evacuation Day, the end of America’s Revolutionary War in Boston. General George Washington had been able to fortify Dorchester Heights, a line of hills overlooking the British-held town, and by March of 1776 (months before the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia), the besieged British generals decided on a strategic retreat. On March 17, the British troops and loyalists sailed out of Boston Harbor – a great victory for Washington and the Continental Army, a neat coincidence in later centuries as Boston grew with great numbers of Irish immigrants and their descendents, who gladly celebrated Evacuation Day because it was also the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint.
I was born near the Monument on Dorchester Heights (not on a rampart, but in a hospital!) and have happy childhood memories of being officially released from my suburban school so that I could go into South Boston and attend “patriotic exercises,” not the wreath-laying in the morning, but the big parade in the afternoon. We’d watch the Army and Navy marching units, the parish fife and drum corps, the big open cars filled with dignitaries, the young politicians walking and shaking hands along the way, and the little baton twirlers shivering in their short skirts in the sharp wind sweeping up from the harbor. Family and friends gathered in my grandmother’s house. I recall no beer of any color, and no corned beef or cabbage – rather, I think, ham and Delmonico potatoes for the grownups, and peanut butter sandwiches for the little kids. But I clearly remember that cake with green frosting!
Thus St. Patrick’s Day makes me remember how I grew up sure of my limitations (as a child) and identity (belonging to this family, in this time and culture). Today’s readings seem to fit, saying “Know yourself as God’s imperfect creature, and repent!” Thus the Gospel excerpt opens by saying that Jesus “addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”
In the little parable, I assume that the Pharisee speaks the truth when he says he’s not guilty of dishonesty (except to himself) or adultery, and that he fasts and contributes substantially to the temple. He’s probably not bad -- at least he thanks God for his good fortune -- but with his easy conscience and self-satisfaction, he’s missed the whole point of his identity, his relationship with God. The tax collector (“publican” in some translations) is probably guilty of some greedy and dishonest actions, but somehow he knows who he is and Who God is. He “beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’”
We are all limited creatures. We are all sinners. And our limited knowledge, good deeds, fasting and tithing are not enough. The first reading from Hosea and the Psalm’s refrain both give us the key line, “It is love / mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.” Not pious rituals, not the usual donation, not the well-rewarded public service – but, as the Psalm says, “A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.”
The “burnt offering” that the psalm says God won’t accept is like the prayer of the Pharisee, while the “contrite spirit” is the spirit of the tax collector, who “went home justified.” And while we cannot be sure of many details about the historical St. Patrick, we do have enough evidence and a few actual writings to know him to have been outstandingly courageous, industrious, dedicated, successful – and always humble. So on this Lenten Saturday, this happy feast day, I pray as Patrick must have done, the words of our brother the tax collector, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”