This, haunting, and beautiful Irish Air, is also called, “St Patrick’s Breastplate,” or more tenderly, “The Deer’s Cry.” The beast plate, or lorica, was originally the armor that the Romans wore for protection in battle. Patrick’s lorica was his song, his creedal confession! The hymn is so distinct, so powerful, that it tends to stick in your mind long after you sing it. For Patrick it was a Trinitarian oath of protection against death. The song is said to have been taught in the monasteries from the 7th C. on, as a sign of faith in the face of some very ‘dark ages.’
Patrick was born into a Christian family in Britain, in the year 372, or, some say, 381, or maybe 389, others contend. In any case, Christianity was still young in the British Isles. And though Patrick’s family came from nobility, at 16 he was captured by raiders from Ireland, and taken away to be sold into slavery. He was a common laborer on a farm, though he never gave up his faith or his prayer life. It was here that he first learned the Irish language which would serve him so well later on. Eventually, he managed to escape, and immediately he went into the priesthood and was ordained three years later. In 431 he returned to Ireland as a missionary, and the following year was consecrated bishop of Ireland. From then on he pursued his passion of organizing churches, and converting the Druids to Christianity, and he died of course, on March 17.
Now the story behind St Patrick’s Breastplate, or lorica, is a wonderful one! Patrick met the Druid king Loegaire at Tara Hill, or, the hill of the kings in Ireland, for a kind of challenge. He picked the night of ‘the festival of the Druid fire-worshipers.’ This spring festival began with the extinguishing of all fires throughout the country. And that’s the moment when Patrick proudly and defiantly lit a Pascal fire on the next hill, in plain view. This, of course, enraged king Loegaire, who set off in full attack mode to find, and kill Patrick, he and his men, dressed in full lorica – helmets and armor, weapons in hand. Patrick and his followers, naturally began to flee – wearing, for their protection, their ‘monastic robes,’ and, ‘singing their lorica’: “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three.” And he added verses as they ran: “I bind unto myself to day, Christ’s incarnation, his baptism in the Jordan River, his cross of death for my salvation, his bursting from the spiced tomb… I bind unto myself today.” And as they fled, as the legend goes, Patrick and his companions were miraculously transformed, into deer, or, as an 11th C. translation tells it: “on that occasion they were seen before those who were lying in ambush as if they were wild deer having behind them a fawn.” This is where the title, “The Deer’s Cry,” comes from, of course. Faithful followers of Christ, invoking the name of the Trinity, and all the ways that Jesus saves us, crying it out, in song, after they boldly lit the paschal fire, the fire of new life, the first light of Christ at the Easter Vigil. And, “the Three in One” protected them, saved them, by making them appear as fleet footed, innocent deer, running by!
Now, if you heard the tragic news from yesterday, you know some 18 people who could have used such a lorica, from the ambush of a deranged shooter. A 22 year old with a automatic weapon decided to walk into an open air meeting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in her Arizona district – ironically, just outside a “Safeway,” – and ended up killing 6 others and wounding 10 more. The congresswoman’s office was a target last spring, which was vandalized, windows shattered, door broken down, immediately following her vote in support of the Health Care bill in Congress. Thankfully, no one was there at the time. All the while, however, the rhetoric against her and her district has been virulent, including a website that featured the cross-hairs of a rifle scope aimed at a map of her district. Polarizing language, demonizing others, can only inflame, and too often results in unintended consequences.
Jesus clearly lived and modeled another way, like St. Patrick’s, and apparently, Congresswoman Gifford’s, that was, principled, fearless, articulate, and non-violent. Jesus took with him the weapons we all do, as his disciples and followers, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, that alights on us in our baptism, and which is our lorica everyday. We live as innocently as deer, as fiercely as the Pascal fire.
Patrick was unafraid to light, and receive life from, the new fire – a David, going up against a Goliath. His lorica was the strong name of our Trinitarian God. But curiously, not just about Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Patrick also sings of the natural world that the Druids worshiped, with a twist! He sang that, “the starlit 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,” all “praises the Lord of my salvation. For salvation is of Christ the Lord.” It was a bold message to the Druids on the eve of their ceremony to worship the gods of nature, that king Loegaire claimed to control. This too was a part of Patrick’s lorica.
So when times are tough we put on our lorica, against all temptations. We do not worship our jobs, even in this time of fearful unemployment. We do not worship our family, though they are dear to us. We do not worship the sun, or our freedom, or our country, or our military might, or our bank accounts, or anything else that commands our attention, or begs for our allegiance.
Sometimes that puts us in an unpopular place. It may cost us a battle or two, with our friends or family. But the ultimate victory is certain when we put on the Breastplate of St. Patrick, our lorica. Patrick’s aim was to bring the good news to all people. In that, he was much like the Apostle Peter before him. Peter was also in a challenging situation when he was called to Jerusalem, to explain himself before his colleagues in the faith, those who were not yet convinced of his outreach plan to the Gentiles, to accept a new group. So he put on his lorica, if you will, and sang it to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” that we were called to preach to the Gentiles too, that “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” That’s all the lorica, the prayer and protection, Peter had, but the rest is history. Through Peter and Paul, the outreach has continued to this day. And with St. Patrick we, “bind unto ourselves today, to the strong name of the Trinity.”