‘Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place” Ephesians 6:14
Today is about one thing, about remembering the message brought by one man; it is about remembering the arrival of the Christian faith upon these shores.
The vibrancy and the power of that faith comes through in the writings of the time. Being a Christian wasn’t just about attending a church on a Sunday, it was about living every second and every minute and every hour under the protection of God. There was a belief inherited from the Celtic past that there was an energy, a force, a power, a strength behind all things, the God proclaimed by Patrick fulfilled this belief.
The words of the Breastplate tell us about this God and about the faith of our forebears. The hymn is rooted in Scripture and begins and ends at the very heart of the Christian faith, the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
The Trinity is the ‘strong name’. God is not just a remote, distant, impersonal and indifferent God in the way that many of us seem to think of him. He is a present and personal God. He is a God that one can bind to oneself. Look at the fifth verse, he is a God who has power to hold us and lead us. His eye watches us. His strength maintains us. His ear hears us.
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.
This God that Patrick proclaims is a very different God from the gods believed in by pagans who were vague in their character and unmoved by people’s cries.
The Breastplate is a cry for protection and it is a cry made in confidence because, as he expresses in the second verse, Patrick knows that Jesus has been through all our human experiences and has prepared a way for us. Patrick works through the Gospel story as he says,
I bind this day to me for ever,
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.
The power of the God, who has done, and who will do, all these things, is the power that is available to those who call upon him for protection.
Patrick realizes he stands in a great company – there is what the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews calls the great ‘cloud of witnesses’: the angels and the archangels; the martyrs and the apostles; the patriarchs and the prophets; and all who have lived good and Godly lives.
Not only is God known through the faithful, but he is known through his Creation, a Creation that is filled with God’s power and energy. Patrick delights in the world around him: the starlit sky; the sun’s brightness, the moon’s whiteness; the power of lightning and storms; the reassurance of the solid earth, the massive sea and the unchanging rocks. I wonder how many of us if we go out today will look around us and find the reassurance of God’s presence.
Why does Patrick express himself with such passion? Why is he so determined to find God’s protection? Because of his fear, and the fear of the people of his time, of violence and sudden death. Read through the sixth and the seventh verses and there is no mistake that Patrick believes the world to be in the grip of evil powers.
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 wiles,
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.
Ephesians Chapter 6, the same chapter where Patrick finds the idea of God as a breastplate, is where Patrick would have found Saint Paul’s warning to Christians, ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’.
Thankfully, we no longer live in fear of death and violence. We are insulated from the threats that troubled Patrick, but in our security we have lost a sense of the reality of evil. Our theological scholars would now discount any suggestion of there being dark powers. Perhaps if we lived elsewhere in the world, where life was more precarious, where war and violence were ever present realities, and where evil men perpetrate evil deeds, we would take Patrick’s words much more to our hearts.
Through all the experiences of life Patrick has a sense of Christ with him and within him. Patrick shows his familiarity with the writings of Saint Paul in the penultimate verse.
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.
Paul writes to the Galatians, ‘I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’.
At the end of the hymn Patrick has come full circle – back to the Trinity, back to God and in the closing two lines he expresses the message of the Gospel, “Praise to the Lord of my salvation, Salvation is of Christ the Lord’.
May we follow Patrick’s example: may we bind God to ourselves and may we, like Patrick, know Christ as our Lord.