A Homily for the Feast of St. James the Apostle

Something I wrote six years ago, while serving at St. James, Greenville:

For us, celebrating the feast day of St. James is an occasion for a party, a festive celebration, a good time. But the fact that we are named St. James Episcopal Church, that St. James the Apostle is our patron saint, probably doesn’t mean a great deal to us. I doubt many of us pray to James for guidance or help in times of trouble; so far as I know, no one has named their son James, or daughter Jamie, because of the connection with St. James—although I will tell you, the name Jacob is the Greek name for James. In fact, our only connection with St. James may be that it provided a group from St. James with an excuse to take a trip to Spain a year ago June.

That’s not the way it worked with saints in the past. Christians perceived a direct relationship between themselves and their patron saint. Their patron saint was their go-to guy, the person in heaven who would listen more attentively to their prayers, and intervene more readily on their behalf with the almighty. In order to make sure that would happen, people cultivated the relationship with the saint on earth, offering special devotions, painting images or designing chapels in churches, perhaps keeping a logo, like a scallop shell, near by to remind oneself constantly of the saint’s presence and concern.

Because the saints were often regarded as benefactors, as patrons, even as friends or family members, pious Christians tended to develop elaborate legends about the saints’ lives. These were collected, told, and handed down over the years. In the case of biblical saints, like figures from the New Testament, the apostles or other people mentioned, often the barest mention of a name was enough material from which to weave a rich tapestry of story.

In the case of James, we have more biblical evidence than for many of the other apostles or early followers of Jesus. He was the brother of John; sons of Zebedee. They were fishermen, but perhaps a little wealthier than the norm, for there is mention that their father had servants. James and John were brash, impetuous, among the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. After the crucifixion and resurrection, they became leaders of the early Christian community. James was the second martyr mentioned in the book of Acts. His death took place fairly early, perhaps around 42 ad.

That outline provided the basis for other legends. One of the most prominent was that James traveled to Spain and preached the gospel there before returning to Jerusalem and facing martyrdom. Later, the legend arose that his body was miraculously transported by angels to Campostela, where it became the focus of the most important pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. There is a dark side to St. James. When the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain began their reconquest of the peninsula, St. James was their battle cry. There were media reports that when Spanish troops were sent to Iraq, they sewed St. James’ crosses on their uniforms.

Pious legend aside, in today’s gospel we are reminded of both sides of James, his brashness which led Jesus to call him and his brother John “sons of thunder.” But here Jesus turns aside the very human, and very political request of the two brothers, and predicts their martyrdom. Today’s gospel already reveals Matthew putting spin on the story of James. Matthew says it was his mother, Salome, who asked Jesus to put them at his left and right hand, when he came into his glory. In Mark, the earliest gospel, James and John make the request themselves.

Either way, it provides an occasion for Jesus to teach them, and us about discipleship, about what it means to follow Jesus: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” It is a lesson Jesus taught his disciples dramatically at the last supper, when he washed the feet of his disciples. It is a lesson James no doubt learned in the years leading up to his martyrdom. It is also a lesson we need to learn.

Heroism in our society is a much overblown idea. We live surrounded by superheros; now Hollywood is even giving us movies about superhero girlfriends. They can leap tall buildings at a single bounce, and you don’t want to get in a lover’s quarrel with them. In a way, the saints are Christian superheros, certainly that’s often been the way they’ve been understood and relied on in the Christian tradition—got a problem? Call on a saint!

But today’s gospel tells us that the saints are not superheros; what sets them apart is not their miraculous power. Rather, what makes them saints is their faith, and their discipleship, their service to others. To see the saints, to see St. James, as a model of how we might live in the world, serving and loving Christ, and our neighbors, is what devotion to the saints is all about.