Son of Thunder: St James the Greater
Tuesday 21 July 2020
Saturday 25 July marks the feast day of St James the Greater, a fisherman, follower and friend of Jesus Christ.
Thought to be a cousin of Jesus, St James is in the unique position of being one of four disciples who saw the earthly ministry of Jesus in its entirety. According to the Gospel of Mark, James and his brother John were in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee mending nets with their father Zebedee.
Jesus was walking on the beach. He had just called Simon and his brother Andrew, explaining how he would make them fishers of men, and the gospel says they left their nets immediately. James and John did the same.
What we know about James does not fit easily into any traditional saintly stereotypes. Here is what we know of James from mentions of him the gospels:
He may have been tall. James is known as ‘the Greater’ to distinguish him from the Apostle James ‘the Less,’ who is believed to have been either the younger or shorter of the two.
He was not an exceptional fisherman. Two occasions in the gospels mention James fishing. The first is in Luke’s gospel at the start of Jesus’ ministry, the second is in John’s after the Resurrection. In each instance, James and his friends have caught no fish despite fishing all night.
He had a bad temper. The Gospel of Mark alludes to James’s fiery temper, for which Jesus nicknamed him and his brother Boanerges or ‘Sons of Thunder’.
He had some bad ideas. James made numerous suggestions to Jesus that were, in retrospect, brazen at best. For example, James and John asked Jesus to grant them seats on his right and left in his glory. Jesus rebuked them, saying they did not know what they were asking. The gospel notes that the other apostles were annoyed with the two brothers. Then in Luke’s gospel, James and his brother wanted to call down fire to destroy a Samaritan town as an act of revenge for their lack of hospitality but they were again rebuked by Jesus.
And yet despite his temper, despite his tendency to share his sometimes violent and often poorly-considered notions with the Lord, the apostle was in Christ’s inner circle of closest friends. As such, he witnessed the power of Jesus in a way others were unable to see. For example, he was one of only three apostles whom Jesus selected to bear witness to the Transfiguration.
There’s something comforting about that; that someone demonstrating characteristics Jesus did not necessarily approve of (bad temper, propensity for violence) was still able to be so close to Jesus, who must have enjoyed James’s company and seen something in him that was more than the sum of his imperfections.
Following the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, James made his way to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the good news before returning to Jerusalem. There, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, James was beheaded under the orders of King Herod Agrippa I. He is believed to be the first apostle to be martyred, and the only apostle whose martyrdom is mentioned in the New Testament.
His remains were transported by his followers to the Iberian Peninsula, and in the ninth century, the tomb of St James (Santiago in Spanish) was believed to have been rediscovered in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. For this reason, since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have walked from their homes to the shrine of St James in Spain. These thousand-year-old pilgrimage routes became known as the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James).
St James is the patron saint of pilgrims and of Spain where his feast day is widely celebrated, especially in Santigo de Compostela, where a two-week celebration concludes with fireworks. Today, the Way of St James is recognised as one of the most prominent Christian pilgrimage sites in the world. In 1993, UNESCO designated the Way of St James pilgrimage routes as a World Heritage Site.
St James the Greater Prayer
O glorious Apostle,
St James, who by reason of thy fervent and generous heart
was chosen by Jesus to be a witness of His glory on Mount Tabor,
and of His agony in Gethsemane;
thou, whose very name is a symbol of warfare and victory:
obtain for us strength and consolation in the unending warfare of this life,
that, having constantly and generously followed Jesus,
we may be victors in the strife and deserve to receive the victor's crown in heaven.