From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
And let this person belong entirely to God. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
In the time before the first Christian missionaries came, the religion of the people of Britain was, like that of many other ancient peoples, dominated by the fear endemic to leading a mortal life. In those ages before modern medicine, fire brigades, police forces, pesticides, and flood control, and when a “ripe old age” was 50, perhaps people had fewer illusions about their mortality. The Celts knew well that life was uncertain. A season could yield a harvest or a crop failure. A woman’s labor could augur a decrease as easily as an increase in the family number. A fever could end in health or in death.
In the face of such uncertainty, the pagan religion of the Celts offered the people spells to weave for their protection and charms to wear in the hope of warding away any unseen dangers. Understanding the power of these habits, engrained deep by countless generations, some of the Celtic missionaries sought to offer Christian alternatives to satisfy every old religious impulse. Thus, instead of a charm, the believer would wear a cross. Instead of the memorized words of a pagan incantation, the believer would learn to recite the words of a Christian prayer. It is possible, therefore, that some Celts made such a switch without feeling much comforted and were left to relate to the Christian God bound by the same attitude of fear and insecurity that their pre-Christian ancestors had known before the gospel came. Indeed some of the early breastplate prayers do seem to give voice to something of that fear-filled feeling.
One example is the prayer of Laidcenn. His breastplate prayer has the person who prays call on God daily to help and save from plague or enemy, to defend from every evil, to deliver and guard from foul friends and the darts of foul demons, to deliver and protect from the unseen nails fashioned by foul friends. And Laidcenn’s crafting of his breastplate is almost obsessive in its concern to name every single body part even down to tonsils and toenails, lest the enemy should sneak in through some unnamed crevice.
But Fursa’s prayer is one of a great many Celtic prayers that go far beyond this fear-driven, charm-weaving form. Indeed in essence Fursa’s Breastplate is not a prayer for protection at all. It is instead a prayer of self-offering. Daily, in detail and with words, Fursa simply does what the Apostle Paul commands in his letter to the Romans: “Offer your bodies,” he says, “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your acceptable act of worship.”
This is what Fursa’s prayer does – body part by body part – thoroughly but not obsessively. And unlike those fear-driven pagan spells and incantations for protection, the motivation behind Fursa’s prayer is not fear, but thanksgiving and worship.
The apostle calls on me to dedicate my body “in view of his mercy.” In that same letter, the Apostle Paul reminds me exactly what that mercy is. It is that God, the son, came to us clothed in humanity, calling people to put themselves right with God by believing in him. He gave himself freely to save Jews and Gentiles from the powerful effects of sin; to give life to our mortal bodies; to connect our spirits with that of God himself. He ascended to that Spirit might fill our hearts with love and the cry of worship, setting us free from all fear of judgment and death. This, says the apostle, is God’s gift “to you whom God has called to belong to Christ.”
In view of such great mercy, I will dedicate my body, and I will do so with no specific outcome in mind other than that I might belong entirely to him. This is my most fundamental act of thanksgiving for all that God has already done. So it is not in fear but in view of all that mercy that I will tell my savior today: “And let this person belong entirely to God.”