The Pope: James the Greater

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

We continue with the series of portraits of the apostles chosen directly by Jesus during his life. We have spoken of St. Peter and of his brother Andrew. Today we meet the figure of James. The biblical lists of the Twelve mention two people with his name: James, son of Zebedee, and James, son of Alphaeus (cf. Mark 3:17,18; Matthew 10:2-3), who are generally distinguished with the names James the Greater and James the Lesser.

These designations are not intended to measure their holiness, but simply to state the different relevance they receive in the New Testament writings and, in particular, in the framework of Jesus’ earthly life. Today we dedicate our attention to the first of these two personages of the same name.

The name James is the translation of “Iákobos,” a variation under Greek influence of the name of the famous patriarch Jacob. The apostle of this name is John’s brother, and in the mentioned lists he occupies second place after Peter, as occurs in Mark (3:17), or the third place after Peter and Andrew, as in the Gospels of Matthew (10:2) and Luke (6:14), while in the Acts of the Apostles he appears after Peter and John (1:13). This James belongs, together with Peter and John, to the group of three privileged disciples who were admitted by Jesus to important moments of his life.

As it is very hot today, I would like to abbreviate and mention only two of these occasions now. He was able to take part, along with Peter and John, in the moment of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration. Therefore, it is a question of two very different situations: In one case, James, with the other two disciples, experiences the Lord’s glory, sees him speaking with Moses and Elijah, sees the divine splendor revealed in Jesus; in the other, he finds himself before suffering and humiliation; he sees with his own eyes how the Son of God humbles himself, becoming obedient unto death.

The second occasion was surely for him an opportunity to mature in the faith, to correct the unilateral, triumphalist interpretation of the first: He had to discern how the Messiah, awaited by the Jewish people as a victor, was in reality not only surrounded by honor and glory, but also by sufferings and weakness. The glory of Christ was realized precisely on the cross, in taking part in our sufferings.

This maturation of the faith was brought to completion by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, so that when the supreme moment of witness arrived, James did not draw back. In the early 40s of the first century, King Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, as Luke informs us: “laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the Church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:1-2). The brevity of the news, lacking any narrative detail, reveals, on one hand, how it was normal for Christians to witness to the Lord with their lives and, on the other, that James had a position of relevance in the Church of Jerusalem, in part because of the role carried out during Jesus’ earthly existence.

A subsequent tradition, which goes back at least to Isidore of Seville, recounts that he was in Spain to evangelize that important region of the Roman Empire. According to another tradition, his body was taken to Spain, to the city of Santiago de Compostela. As we all know, that place became an object of great veneration and, still today, is the objective of numerous pilgrimages, not only from Europe, but from the whole world. In this way is explained the iconographic representation of James with the pilgrim’s staff, and the Gospel story, characteristics of the itinerant apostle, committed to the proclamation of the “good news,” characteristics of the pilgrimage of Christian life.

Therefore, we can learn much from James: promptness in accepting the Lord’s call, even when he asks us to leave the “bark” of our human securities; enthusiasm in following Him on the paths that he indicates to us beyond our illusory presumption; readiness to give witness to Him with courage and, if necessary, with the supreme sacrifice of life. Thus, James the Greater is presented to us as an eloquent example of generous adherence to Christ. He, who initially had requested, through his mother, to be seated with his brother next to the Master in his Kingdom, was precisely the first to drink the chalice of the passion, in sharing martyrdom with the Apostles.

And, in the end, summarizing everything, we can say that his path, not only exterior but above all interior, from the mount of the Transfiguration to the mount of the agony, is a symbol of the pilgrimage of Christian life, amid the persecutions of the world and consolations of God, as the Second Vatican Council states. Following Jesus, we, like James, know that, even in difficulties, we are on the right path.


~ by Rob on June 22, 2006.

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