Today is the Feast Day of St. James the Greater. If you were to rank the original Twelve Apostles, St. James the Greater (not to be confused with St. James the Lesser) would easily be placed in second or third place. Personally, I would place him third behind Saint Peter and Saint John the Apostle, his brother. The two brothers together are known as the “Sons of Thunder” because of their great zeal and tempers. (When I was teaching at St. Dominic Savio High School a couple years back, a few of my students confused their title and called them the “Thunder Brothers” – it made us all laugh!). The name “James” derives from the term – Iakobos that comes from the Patriarch Jacob.
St. James the Greater, along with Saint Peter and Saint John the Apostle are the three privileged Apostles that witnessed major events in the life of Jesus Christ. These three disciples witness Jesus’ Transfiguration and Jesus’ Agony in the Garden.
During the Transfiguration, Peter, John, and James see firsthand the Lord in all his glory and splendor. They also witness Jesus speaking to Moses, who represents the Old law, and Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets. These two major Old Testament figures appear here because Jesus would bring to fulfillment both the Law and the Prophets in the New Covenant (read Matthew 5:17).
During Jesus’ Agony in the Garden, Saint James would see our Lord’s suffering and humiliation at the hands of the Temple guards who came to seize him. Saint James, who would eventually suffer martyrdom himself in the years to come, watched the Son of Man willingly and obediently give-up his life. After Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, Saint James, along with the other Apostles, received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost gave the Apostles the grace, courage, and words they needed to go out into the world and preach the Gospel message.
All of the apostles were martyred, including Saint James the Greater, who was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa in 44 A.D. The only apostle not martyred but was exiled on the Island of Patmos (off the coast of modern day Turkey) was St. John the Apostle. There is no doubt that watching Jesus’ Agony in the Garden and the graces from the Holy Spirit on Pentecost gave Saint James and all the disciples the fortitude they needed to die in the name of Jesus Christ. In his book, The Spirit of Catholicism, Karl Adam says, “Twelve simple, uneducated fishermen revolutionized the world, and that with no other instrument than their new faith and their readiness to die for that faith.”
The tradition of the Church as well as Saint Isidore of Seville claim that Saint James the Greater made it all the way to the region of Spain. Other traditions say that his body was taken to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. This is the final destination of those who make the pilgrimage known as the Camino or The Way of St. James.
For us, Saint James is a symbol of one who goes on pilgrimage. He is often depicted in art with a pilgrim’s staff (walking stick) and the Gospel book for he brought the Good News to Spain. Saint James the Greater is the Pilgrim Apostle. During this week of World Youth Day, we should call on Saint James the Apostle in intercessory prayer to be with Pope Francis and all the pilgrims gathering in Rio De Janerio, Brazil.
So what can we learn from Saint James the Greater?
First, we need to accept God’s call and leave our human insecurities learning to trust more readily; second, we should show great passion for Jesus Christ, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so; third, be great witnesses’ of fortitude for Jesus Christ, even though we might be persecuted and suffer red or white martyrdom, and fourth, when we are faced with great suffering and conflict, we are going in the right direction for our Lord and the Apostles all endured persecution and strife.
When speaking about this great Apostle of the Church, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “…[he] stands before us an eloquent example of generous adherence to Christ. He, who initially had requested, through his mother, to be seated with his brother next to the Master in his Kingdom, was precisely the first to drink the chalice of the passion and to share martyrdom with the Apostles.”
On this blessed day of Saint James the Greater, let us invoke his intercession for our daily lives as we are pilgrims making our way home to the Heavenly Kingdom. Let us pray for Pope Francis and all the pilgrims in Rio de Janerio this week, that through the intercession of Saint James the Apostle and the Holy Spirit, the city will be transformed into a city devoted to Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saint James the Greater…Pray for Us!