Guido Reni, Saint James the Great ©Google Arts Project
Saint James the Great, Apostle
The first four Apostles Jesus called were all fishing partners (Luke 5:10). To Peter and his brother Andrew “Jesus said ‘Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.’ Going a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They too were in their boat mending their nets. He called them; so they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.” (Mark 1:16-20)
Three of these first four apostles were Jesus’ closest friends: Peter, James and John were a privileged threesome who were blessed to be present at the Transfiguration, the raising of the dOcthter of Jairus, and the Agony in Gethsemane. (Matthew 17:1-27, 26:37, Mark 5:37). Because they were favoured, however, Jesus found reasons to purify and discipline them. For example, St. mark tells how James and John came (Matthew says it was their mother) to ask that they have the seats of honour in the kingdom. When other disciples became indignant over such ambition, Jesus used the occasion to teach them all the lesson of the humble service. This Gospel passage (Matthew 20:20-28) is used on James’ Feast day, July 25.
On another occasion (Luke 9:52-56), James and his younger brother John demonstrated why Jesus nicknamed them “the sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). A Samaritan town would not welcome Jesus. “When his disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, would you not have us call down fire from heaven to destroy them?’ He turned toward them only to rebuke them.”
But the Lord’s death and resurrection, along with the descent of the Holy Spirit transformed them. James was apparently the first of the apostles to be martyred. “During that period, King Herod started to harass some of the members of the Church. He beheaded James, the brother of John, and when he saw that this pleased certain of the Jews, he took Peter into custody also.” (Acts 12:1-3). Our James is not to be confused with the leader of the Jerusalem community commemorated on July 3. This other apostle James “the Lesser” (meaning “the younger”) was the son of Alphaeus and Mary, not of Zebedee and his wife. Nor is our James the author of the Letter of James. The name “James” is the English form of the Hebrew “Jacob”.
Statue of St James, under restoration in 2021
In the Middle Ages, it seems almost everyone in Europe made a pilgrimage to James’ tomb in northwest Spain, so popular was our patron in those days. “These pilgrimage routes, the architectural forms enveloped along them, and the cultural customs connected with them were principal factors in the shaping of Western Europe. Pilgrims to his shrine wear scallop shells symbols that traditionally guarantee them the hospitality of any village through which they pass.” (Liturgy Training Publications Sourcebook, Archdiocese of Chicago). Since the seashell suggests baptism, James’s symbol is also a symbol for John the Baptist, as well as for anyone coming home from the beach.
In the Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation of Vatican II, paragraph 7, we read: “Christ … commissioned the apostles to preach the gospel, the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and by their preaching to impart divine gifts to all people. This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the apostles. By their oral preaching, by their example, and by their ordinances, the apostles handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with him, and from what he did, or what they had learned through the promptings of the Holy Spirit.”
Music for St James the Greater: GUILLAUME DUFAY (c1400-1474). This is a glorious disc, superb performances of truly wonderful music. St James the Greater, Apostle of Christ, foster son of the Virgin Mary, brother of St John the Evangelist, and indelibly – if somewhat perplexingly – associated with Compostela, became the focus of many composers; after all, anyone who was anyone in the Middle Ages (including Chaucer’s Wife of Bath) would make a pilgrimage to St James’s shrine in Spain at some point in their life. The exact background to Dufay’s Mass is as yet unknown but it is an enormous work (forty minutes plus) of great passion.