The feast of our church’s patron, St. James the Elder, is July 25th.
The following is adapted from an article I wrote for the New Proclamation Commentary on Feasts, Holy Days and other Celebrations (2007, Fortress Press, Minneapolis).
Saint James, the apostle known as James the Elder or James the Greater, was the son of Zebedee and Salome, the brother of St. John the Evangelist, and one of the first of Jesus’ companions. The Synoptics report that James and John, along with the other pair of brothers, Peter and Andrew, were called away from their nets by Jesus. The notable humility of John’s Gospel about the evangelist himself extends to his brother as well: John’s gospel never mentions James, but it may be inferred in that account that after being called by Jesus, John summoned James in the same way that Andrew summoned Peter. The epithets greater and elder distinguish him from James the son of Alphaeus, also an apostle.
James, John and Peter are the most prominent among the apostles: they are the only ones of the Twelve to be witnesses at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, and Jesus’ final agony in Gethsemane. Jesus gives James and John the nickname Boanerges (Sons of Thunder), apparently because of their eagerness to act decisively if not always thoughtfully. Jesus rebukes them for forbidding a man from casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he was not one of their company (Luke 9:49-50) and they seek Jesus’ permission to call down a rain of fire on the Samaritans who refuse to receive Jesus (Luke 9:54). Apparently John and James and their family don’t yet understand that Jesus’ kingdom will not be an earthly one when either they (Mark 10:35-45) or their mother (Matt. 20:20-28) ask Jesus for the places of honor at his side when sits on his throne. This request angers the other apostles, and Jesus, in his response, predicts James’ and Johns’ martyrdom while denying their request. James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44 C.E. (Acts 12:1-2), the first martyr of Agrippa’ suppression of Palestine Christians.
Later legend has James preaching in Spain before returning to Jerusalem and being martyred. Tradition holds that his relics are held at the Cathedral Church of Santiago de Compostela in Spain; it is said that James’ disciples brought his body back to Spain by boat after his death, although a more elaborate tale holds that after his decapitation his body was taken up by angels and sailed on an unmanned and rudderless boat to Iria Flavia in Spain, where a rock sprung up and enclosed his relics, which were later found and carried to Compostela. Another legend tells that as the disciples were approaching Spain by boat, a horse and rider on the shore plunged into the sea, the horse being uncontrollably drawn to the Saint’s relics. Instead of drowning, horse and rider rose up from the sea covered in cockleshells, which became one of the symbols of the saint (the other is a cross made from a sword). Santiago de Compostela became one of the three most important medieval pilgrimage sites. A late twentieth-century revival of the pilgrimage tradition brings over one hundred thousand pilgrims a year to Santiago. St. Saturnin in Toulouse, France also claims to possess James’ relics.
St. James’ Day has been celebrated on July 25 since at least the ninth century, and there are many traditions associated with the celebration. The symbol of St. James is the cockleshell, and the eating of shellfish is associated with the feast in many places. The French dish Coquilles St. Jacques is the best known of these dishes, but in England, oysters are the traditional dish of the day, and an English saying holds that “He who eats oysters on St. James’ Day will never want.”
In the scripture readings for the day, the themes are servant hood, zeal and martyrdom. As noted, James’ and John’s zeal and their tempers earned them the nickname “Sons of Thunder,” and that spirit seems to have guided the choice of the non-gospel readings. The serving of Justice at God’s hand in Jeremiah (45:1-5) and Psalm 7 (1-10) is echoed in James’ and John’s desire to call fire down upon the unwelcoming Samaritans. Unfortunately, we don’t know the content of Jesus’ rebuke to them, but the rebuke is a reminder that zeal, however holy, doesn’t necessarily lead to good.
The Gospel reading (Matthew 20:20-28), in which Jesus speaks of both the imperative of servant hood and its cost, using Eucharistic and baptismal imagery, provide an excellent opportunity to reflect on contemporary concerns related to power, justice, and human needs. If we can hear in our personal, community, and national lives any echo of the Sons of Thunder and their desire to act decisively against those who oppose them, and to sit at the place of highest honor, then Jesus’ response, and the subsequent deaths of both Jesus and James show us that God’s call is in another direction. And since few if any in our communities will ever face the kind of persecution that James suffered, what does it mean for us to drink from Jesus’ cup and share in Jesus’ baptism? This day is also an apt time to remember and reflect on those throughout the world who do continue to suffer persecution and be killed for their faith.