Saint James the Apostle

Saint James, Apostle
First Century

July 25—Feast
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of Spain, equestrians, and pilgrims

 Herod strikes again 

The primary legacy of the Twelve Apostles is silence. Yes, their voices are sometimes heard in the Gospels, briefly. Yes, they traveled, evangelized, and built up the Church, discreetly. And yes, they were martyred, save John, though obliquely. Who went exactly where, and did what, is guesswork. When, how, by whom, and where each Apostle died is largely conjecture. Even most of their burial places are uncertain. After the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, and especially after the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, the Apostles dispersed throughout the deserts and mountains of the Eastern Mediterranean world. They gave their backs to Jerusalem. And as they walked away, their trails were lost, sand filled their footsteps, and history’s endless cycles erased their exact tracks. With some few exceptions, most of the valuable details were forgotten. The Apostles are now twelve islands of names in a sea of silence. 

Some footprints of today’s saint, James the Greater, were preserved by Scripture. James was a member of the Twelve and of the Three; Peter, James, and John were the inner core that formed a shield of fidelity encircling Jesus Christ. James and his brother, John the Evangelist, author of the fourth Gospel, were fishermen who were called from their job on a lake to become fishers of men. It’s possible that other men were called before or after James and John, and that these unknown men laughed in Christ’s face, thought Him crazy, asked a thousand questions first, or just refused to follow a man they did not know and who offered no assurances. Those who said “No” to Christ are lost to history. Christ’s was not an open invitation. He was on a mission and kept walking. There was a moment, and then the moment passed. James and John seized their Christ-moment with both hands and never let go. A moment became forever. 

Peter, James, and John were in the home of Jairus when his servant was raised from the dead. On Mount Tabor they gazed in awe at the illumined face of Christ, His translucent skin radiating like the sun. And these three were at Christ’s side in the intense stillness of a Thursday evening in the Garden of Gethsemane, providing what consolation their presence could. In the Gospels, Saint James is impetuous and full of character. He was not like vanilla ice cream. Everyone likes vanilla ice cream. James’s personality seemed to be more like sandpaper or barbed wire. You felt his roughness. You got hurt if you crossed him. James wanted Christ to rain fire on the Samaritans for their obduracy. He even desired to be seated at Christ’s right hand in the Kingdom of God, which led the Lord to prophesy his fidelity unto death.

Saint James’ shocking martyrdom was dutifully recorded by the early Church. Saint Luke’s Acts of the Apostles states that “King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword” (Acts 12:1-2). No other Apostle’s martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament. Perhaps he was singled out by Herod because of his fiery temperament. He would not have been one to retract a statement. He and his brother, after all, earned the nickname “Sons of Thunder” from Christ himself (Mk 3:17). And so it was that James probably knelt, his neck resting on a block of wood as his head extended just past it. And then the sword fell, the blood ran, and the crown of martyrdom rested on a head without a body.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, in a letter sent to the Church of Ephesus in about 110 A.D., wrote “The more I see a bishop keeping silent, the greater should be the reverence I have for him.” A vast forest grows in total silence. The martyrdom of James was like a large tree crashing to the floor of that forest. His death shook the land. Yet the forest continued growing. And it has been growing now for two thousand years. Like a great, but silent, verdant forest, the Church’s growth continues. Thousands of miles from Jerusalem and two thousand years after his death, the silence of this Apostle, as that of all the Apostles, still echoes. Every time a baby is baptized, a Mass is said, or a priest quickly walks through the door of a hospital room to anoint a dying man, the mission of the Church which the Apostles established carries on. 

Saint James, you died a shocking and unjust death. May your courageous witness to Christ at the end of your life, and your impetuous generosity toward Him during your life, make all Catholics bold and forthright in their love of the things of God.