Today is the feast day of Saint James the Greater. Ora pro Nobis.
Saint James the Greater was the son of Zebedee and Salome. St. James is styled “the Greater” to distinguish him from the Apostle James “the Less,” who was probably shorter of stature. We know nothing of St. James’s early life. He was the brother of John, the beloved disciple, and probably the elder of the two. It is probable, according to Acts 4:13, that John (and consequently his brother James) had not received the technical training of the rabbinical schools; in this sense they were unlearned and without any official position among the Jews. But, according to the social rank of their parents, they must have been men of ordinary education, in the common walks of Jewish life. They had frequent opportunity of coming in contact with Greek life and language, which were already widely spread along the shores of the Galilean Sea.
Several incidents scattered through the Synoptics suggest that James and John had that particular character indicated by the name “Boanerges,” sons of thunder, given to them by the Lord (Mark, iii, 17); they were burning and impetuous in their evangelical zeal and severe in temper. The two brothers showed their fiery temperament against “a certain man casting out devils” in the name of the Christ; John, answering, said: “We [James is probably meant] forbade him, because he followeth not with us” (Luke, ix, 49). When the Samaritans refused to receive Christ, James and John said: “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them?” (Luke, ix, 54; cf. v. 49).
A tradition asserts that James the Greater preached the Gospel in Spain, and that his body was translated to Compostela:
St. James the Greater, having preached Christianity in Spain, returned to Judea and was put to death by order of Herod; his body was miraculously translated to Iria Flavia in the northwest of Spain, and later to Compostela, which town, especially during the Middle Ages, became one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in the world. The vow of making a pilgrimage to Compostela to honour the sepulchre of St. James is still reserved to the pope, who alone of his own or ordinary right can dispense from it. In the twelfth century was founded the Order of Knights of St. James of Compostela. That he actually preached in Spain cannot be validated but the Church still accords him the title, “the Patron of Spain” based on Tradition. (1)
Saint James the Greater, Apostle
from the Liturgical Year, 1909
Let us, today, hail the bright star, which once made Compostella so resplendent with its rays, that the obscure town became, like Jerusalem and Rome, a centre of attraction to the piety of the whole world. As long as the Christian empire lasted, the sepulchre of St. James the Great rivalled in glory that of St. Peter himself.
Among the Saints of God, there is not one who manifested more evidently how the elect keep up after death an interest in the works confided to them by our Lord. The life of St. James after his call to the Apostolate was but short; and the result of his labours in Spain, his allotted portion, appeared to be a failure. Scarcely had he, in his rapid course, taken possession of the land of Iberia, when, impatient to drink the chalice which would satisfy his continual desire to be close to his Lord, he opened by martyrdom the heavenward procession of the twelve, which was to be closed by the other son of Zebedee. O Salome, who didst give them both to the world, and didst present to Jesus their ambitious prayer, rejoice with a double joy: thou art not repulsed; He who made the hearts of mothers is thine abettor. Did he not, to the exclusion of all others except Simon his Vicar, choose thy two sons as witnesses of the greatest works of his power, admit them to the contemplation of his glory on Thabor, and confide to them his sorrow unto death in the garden of his agony? And to-day thy eldest born becomes the first-born in heaven of the sacred college; the protomartyr of the Apostles repays, as far as in him lies, the special love of Christ our Lord.
But how was he a messenger of the faith, since the sword of Herod Agrippa put such a speedy end to his mission? And how did he justify his name of son of thunder, since his voice was heard by a mere handful of disciples in a desert of infidelity? This new name, another special prerogative of the two brothers, was realized by John in his sublime writings, wherein as by lightning flashes he revealed to the world the deep things of God; it was the same in his case as in that of Simon, who having been called Peter by Christ, was also made by him the foundation of the Church: the name given by the Man-God was a prophecy, not an empty title. With regard to James too, then, Eternal Wisdom cannot have been mistaken. Let it not be thought that the sword of any Herod could frustrate the designs of the Most High upon the men of his choice. The life of the Saints is never cut short; their death, ever precious, is still more so when in the cause of God it seems to come before the time. It is then that with double reason we may say their works follow them; God, Himself, being bound in honour, both for His own sake and for theirs, to see that nothing is wanting to their plenitude. As a, victim, of a holocaust he hath received them, says the Holy Ghost, and in time there shall be respect had to them. The just shall shine, and shall run to and fro like sparks among the reeds. They shall judge nations, and rule over peoples; and their Lord shall reign for ever (Wisd. iii. 6-8). How literally was this Divine oracle to be fulfilled with regard to our Saint!
Nearly eight centuries, which to the heavenly citizens are but as a day, had passed over that tomb in the North of Spain, where two disciples had secretly laid the Apostle’s body. During that time, the land of his inheritance, which he had so rapidly traversed, had been overrun first by Roman idolaters, then by Arian barbarians, and when the day of hope seemed about to dawn, a deeper night was ushered in by the Crescent. One day lights were seen glimmering over the briars that covered the neglected monument; attention was drawn to the spot, which henceforth went by the name of the field of stars. But what are those sudden shouts coming down from the mountains, and echoing through the valleys? Who is this unknown chief rallying against an immense army the little worn-out troop whose heroic valour could not yesterday save it from defeat?
And when, after six centuries and a half of struggle, his standard bearers, the Catholic kings, had succeeded in driving the infidel hordes beyond the seas, the valiant leader of the Spanish armies laid aside his bright armour, and the slayer of Moors became once more a messenger of the faith. As fisher of men, he entered his bark, and gathering around it the gallant fleets of a Christopher Columbus, a Vasco di Gama, an Albuquerque, he led them over unknown seas to lands that had never yet heard the name of the Lord. For his contribution to the labours of the twelve, James drew ashore his wellfilled nets from West and East and South, from new worlds, renewing Peter’s astonishment at the sight of such captures. He, whose apostolate seemed at the time of Herod III. to have been crushed in the bud before bearing any fruit, may say with St. Paul: I have no way come short of them that are above measure Apostles, for by the grace of God I have laboured more abundantly than all they (2 Cor. xii. 11, and 1 Cor. xv. 10).
After the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven, James preached His Divinity in Judea and Samaria, and led many to the Christian faith. Soon, however, he set out for Spain, and there made some converts to Christianity; among these were the seven men, who were afterwards consecrated bishops by St. Peter, and were the first sent by him into Spain. James returned to Jerusalem, and, among others, instructed Hermogenes, the magician, in the truths of faith. Herod Agrippa, who had been raised to the throne under the Emperor Claudius, wished to curry favour with the Jews, he, therefore, condemned the Apostle to death for openly proclaiming Jesus Christ to be God. When the man who had brought him to the tribunal saw the courage with which he went to martyrdom he declared that he, too, was a Christian.
As they were being hurried to execution, he implored James’ forgiveness. The Apostle kissed him, saying: “Peace be with you.” Thus both of them were James having a little before cured a paralytic. His body was afterwards translated to Compostella, where it is honoured with the highest veneration; pilgrims flock thither from every part of the world, to satisfy their devotion or pay their vows. The memory of his natalis is celebrated by the Church to-day, which is the day of his translation. But it was near the feast of the Pasch that, first of all the Apostles, he shed his blood, at Jerusalem, as a witness to Jesus Christ.
Patron of Spain, forget not the grand nation which owes to thee both its heavenly nobility and its earthly prosperity; preserve it from ever diminishing those truths which made it, in its bright days, the salt of the earth; keep it in mind of the terrible warning that if the salt lose its savour, it is good for nothing any more but to be cast out and to be trodden on by men (St. Matth. v. 13). At the same time remember, O Apostle, the special cultus wherewith the whole Church honours thee. Does she not to this very day keep under the immediate protection of the Roman Pontiff both thy sacred body, so happily rediscovered in our times (Litterae Leonis XIII., diei 1 Novemb. 1884, ad Archiep. Compostell.), and the vow of going on pilgrimage to venerate those precious relics?
Where now are the days when thy wonderful energy of expansion abroad was surpassed by thy power of drawing all to thyself? Who but he that numbers the stars of the firmament could count the Saints, the penitents, the kings, the warriors, the unknown of every grade, the ever-renewed multitude, ceaselessly moving to and from that field of stars, whence thou didst shed thy light upon the world? Our ancient legends tell us of a mysterious vision granted to the founder of Christian Europe. One evening after a day of toil, Charlemagne, standing on the shore of the Frisian Sea, beheld a long belt of stars, which seemed to divide the sky between Gaul, Germany, and Italy, and crossing over , Gascony, the Basque territory, and Navarre, stretched away to the far-off Province of Galicia. Then thou didst appear to him and say: “This starry path ” marks out the road for thee to go and deliver my “tomb; and all nations shall follow after thee (Pseudo-Turpin. De vita Car. Magn.).” And Charles, crossing the mountains, gave the signal to all Christendom to undertake those great Crusades, which were both the salvation and the glory of the Latin races, by driving back the Mussulman plague to the land of its birth.
When we consider that two tombs formed, as it were, the two extreme points or poles of this movement unparalleled in the history of nations: the one wherein the God-Man rested in death, the other where thy body lay, O son of Zebedee, we cannot help crying out with the Psalmist: Thy friends, O God, are made exceedingly honourable (Ps. csssviii. 17)! And what a mark of friendship did the Son of Man bestow on his humble apostle by sharing His honours with him, when the military Orders and Hospitallers were established, to the terror of the Crescent, for the sole purpose, at the outset, of entertaining and protecting pilgrims on their way to one or other of these holy tombs? May the heavenly impulse now so happily showing itself in the return to the great Catholic pilgrimages, gather once more at Compostella the sons of thy former clients. We, at least, will imitate St. Louis before the walls of Tunis, murmuring with his dying lips the Collect of thy feast; and we will repeat in conclusion: “Be thou, O Lord, the sanctifier and guardian of thy people; that, defended by the protection of thy Apostle James, they may please thee by their conduct, and serve thee with secure minds.” (2)
Image: Saint James the Great, Artist: Guido Reni. circa 1636 and circa 1638. (4)
Research by REGINA Staff