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Reflection on the Feast of St James

Let whoever would become great among you be your servant, and whoever would be foremost among you be a slave.[1]

These words were addressed to James and his brother John in the presence of a gathering that included the other apostles and their mother Salome, the wife of Zebedee. The latter had been intent on securing a place of precedence for her two sons. It must have been a moment of great embarrassment for these two, judging from the nature of the Lord’s reply to this unrivalled request. A fresh examination of the particular passage recorded by St. Matthew, illuminates what actually lies behind its note of admonition.

“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him, with her sons, and bowing before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, ‘What do you desire?’ She said to him, ‘Direct that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom’. In answer, Jesus said, ‘You know not what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They responded to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’ And having heard this, the ten were indignant about the two brothers. And Jesus having called them to him said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not thus, will it be among you; but let whoever would be great among you be your servant and whoever would be foremost among you will be your slave; even as the Son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to yield his life as a ransom for many’." And as they were going out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him.[2]

There is a note of familiarity in the demand of Salome. Perhaps it can be deduced that, because her sons were in a business partnership with Simon Peter, the boldness of her request is no more than astute managerial directness. That the two brothers were nick-named Boanerges[3] might suggest that they inherited something of this determined spirit. Their brashness, prompting considerable indignation among the others,[4] would be transformed by Christ into an asset in their future roles of evangelization.
Already privileged by being present at those special moments of Jesus’ self-disclosure such as the Transfiguration on Mt Thabor, this new incident prompted Jesus to turn this impudence into a force for good. Might it point to the reason why the same two might have been chosen with Simon Peter to accompany the Lord in his preparation for “acceptance of the chalice” in the garden of Gethsemane?

The tradition surrounding the life and influence of St James is fascinating. First, note that there are two[5] important New Testament figures named James. James the Greater whose feast is celebrated today, was born at Bethsaida, a son of Zebedee and Salome and brother of the apostle, John. James the Less, identified as James, the son of Alphaeus, a relative of Christ, perhaps the son of Joseph and half-brother of Jesus, who became the first episkopos of the Church at Jerusalem is known also as James the Just, and mediator at the Council of Jerusalem.[6] The latter composed the Epistle of James which is included in the canon of Sacred Scripture. It is not insignificant that this epistle begins with the verse: “James, a servant (δοῦλος doulos) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” linking him to the spirit of the lead text and the instruction of the Lord Jesus concerning leadership.

An unbroken tradition links St James with Compostela in north western Spain. There is considerable credibility for this tradition, since there were established trading routes from Palestine to Galicia transporting minerals such as gold and copper to the East and returning Middle Eastern luxuries via Alexandria, prized by the Romans. It is believed that James went to Spain in this way and preached in Andalusia, Coimbra and Braga before returning to Palestine. Persecution broke out with the martyrdom of Stephen yet is seems to have subsided due to the more pressing outrage and distraction generated by the emperor Gaius who proposed to erect a statue of himself in the Temple.
Strife for the first disciples erupted again under King Herod III Agrippa, the client prince of Judaea, when Claudius launched his persecution in the early 40s. It was at this time that Peter and James were arrested. The saga of Peter’s escape from prison is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.[7] However, James the son of Zebedee was killed by King Herod about the year 42 AD and is venerated especially at Santiago de Compostela, since his remains were taken there by two of his disciples when they were forced to leave Jerusalem. It is significant that St Bede makes reference in the seventh century to this burial place of St James in Galicia.

James, as one of the trio that was with Jesus at his Transfiguration, prompts a fresh appreciation of the impact of that event for our present circumstances. He beheld Jesus radiantly communing with his Father and conversing with Moses and Elijah. The three companions were overcome with awe as they heard that stupendous utterance that Jesus is the Beloved Son who was to be heard and heeded. It was a command - an essential requirement for faith: “Listen to Him!”[8]
The same three were taken into the seclusion of the Mount of Olives where the intimacy of the preliminary agony was momentarily shared before the arrest of the Beloved Son. Overcome with exhaustion and fear they were unable to “listen and to stay awake”, yet they remain witnesses to Jesus dark night of anguish. James might have recalled the words of his Master, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink? Perhaps they flooded back as he heard “Could you not watch one brief hour with me?” Such key moments would bear fruit after the Resurrection and Pentecost when all would finally make sense. James is great because he learnt to be διάκονος servant and δοῦλος slave. May he lead us to “listen” and be “alert” to the beloved Son.

PMW Reflection for the Feast of St James. 25 July.

[1] Mt 20: 26-7.
[2] Mt 20:20-9
[3] Sons of Thunder.
[4] Mk 10:41. “… and when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.”
[5] Some scholars assert a third James, distinguishing James, son of Alphaeus from James the “brother” of the Lord. St Jerome opts for two.
[6] James proposed that non-Jewish Christians abstain from anything sacrificed to idols; blood; what is strangled; and immorality (i.e. marriage with blood relatives). Of significance is the authority: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”. Aa 15: 28 ἔδοξε γὰρ τῷ ῾Αγίῳ Πνεύματι καὶ ἡμῖν.
[7] Aa 12:1-11.
[8] Mt 17:5. αὐτοῦ ἀκούετε.