The Feast of Saint James the Apostle
July 25, 2021
O gracious God, we remember before thee this day thy servant and apostle James, first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ; and we pray that thou wilt pour out upon the leaders of thy Church that spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority among thy people; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint James the Apostle, also called Saint James the Great or Saint James the More. Well known as the patron saint of Spain, this morning in Santiago de Compostella in Galicia in the north of that country, they are celebrating with special solemnity. There at the site of that great shrine to Saint James that is the goal of many a pilgrimage, they are marking an Holy Year, so-designated as the feast falls on a Sunday, and they have opened the great east door of the cathedral in celebration. James has had this connection to Spain going back to late antiquity. He is reputed to have visited that land sometime before the year 44, when, according to legend, he returned to Judea and was martyred on the orders of Herod Agrippa. His remains are believed to have been transported back to Spain shortly thereafter.
There is, however, little, if any evidence, to support any claim of his work in Spain and even The Golden Legend – that great thirteenth-century source for the lives of the saints – downplays the impact he had in there, reporting, that while “he was sent into Spain for to sow there the word of Jesu Christ, ... when he was there he profited but little, for he had converted unto Christ’s law but nine disciples, of whom he left two there, ... Master John Beleth [even] saith that he converted there but one man only.” We also have evidence from the Letter to the Romans that Spain had not yet been evangelised by the mid-to late 50s, when Paul wrote his epistle. After claiming that he was “making it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man’s foundation (15:20),” Paul told his correspondents at Rome that “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be sped on my journey there by you” (15:24-25). Paul, of course, never made it there, either, yet Spain was evangelised and became a great centre of Christian devotion and pilgrimage. Indeed James was venerated far and wide by the early Middle Ages, and according to The Golden Legend (in which James’s miracles are listed), the Northumbrian scholar and saint Bede “saith of Saint James, that he thundered so high, that if he had thundered a little higher, all the world might not have comprised him.”
With or without the legendary accounts and the miracles attributed to him, James seems worthy of Bede’s praise. With his brother John, he was one of the first apostles to be called, leaving their work and their father Zebedee, and following Jesus. They were, along with Peter, taken up the mountain with Jesus to be witnesses of the Transfiguration, receiving a glimpse of Christ’s majesty, a momentary vision of resurrection life. James recognised, intuited that Jesus was special, and was confirmed in his belief witnessing Jesus life and ministry, hearing his teaching, receiving a foretaste of that which was to come, and experiencing the highs and lows of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.
Whether he went off to Spain or not, what he saw and did, the relationships he formed with his companions, and that which he formed with Jesus, with God in Christ, motivated him to become an evangelist of the Gospel, of the good news of which he was both a witness and a part. Without doubt, he took to heart Jesus’ instruction we heard in today’s Gospel:
whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus told the disciples that the work they were undertaking was not about glory, that it was not about the reward for which James’s and John’s mother asked for her boys. The work they were undertaking, the work to which Jesus called James from mending his nets, is about service – serving our neighbours and thereby serving God. Even the mightiest, even those who “thundered so high,” are not too proud, not too good, to get into the thick of life and do the hard work of ministry.
James the Great is not particularly special. He has no particular powers or gifts. He even has an overbearing mother, whose meddling gets him and his brother in trouble with the other disciples. And this is why he is so important. A regular guy, a good son following in the family business, James none the less reveals to us a faith and commitment to engagement in the world, born of that initial connection to Jesus in that first encounter on the Sea of Galilee and confirmed in the relationship he forged with Jesus and the others along the way to the Cross and Resurrection. That, in itself, is inspiring. It is a faith that is both extraordinary and within our grasp. Like James, we can trust in whatever it is that has drawn us here, into the Body of Christ. We can trust that here we will encounter the risen Christ, both in the sacrament of his body and blood that we share and that unites us with God and with each other, and in the relationships we form here with our fellow disciples. We can trust that we are being strengthened for service in the world and inspired to share the love of Christ that we encounter here out the world with those who may not have heard this good news, or who may not have the same trust in its goodness that we have. We have been drawn here today as pilgrims with Saint James the Great, we have partaken in a foretaste of resurrection life, let us now go forth into the world, perhaps even as far as Spain and beyond, perhaps just down the block, and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ by sharing his love into the world.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
Thomas à Kempis, Priest, 24 July 2021
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume