St. James the Greater

(First Century)

Which of the twelve apostles is named oftenest in the New Testament after St. Peter and St. John? It is St. James the Greater (equals “The Older” or “The Taller”) as distinct from his fellow-apostle James the Less (equals “The Younger” or “The Shorter”). Jesus had a special fondness for this St. James, and took him, along with Peter and John, into his special confidence.

Who was St. James? He was a brother – probably an older brother – of St. John the Evangelist, and like him a Galilean fisherman belonging to the fishing firm of their father Zebedee. Jesus called both of them to the apostolate on the same day, and they left their fishing nets and followed Him to become “fishers of men.”

Like the other apostles, James and John were rather brash and inexperienced in spiritual matters when they first joined Jesus. For instance, one day when the Samaritans, after listening to Jesus, rejected his teaching, the two brothers asked Jesus if they should not pray God to strike these Samaritans dead with lightning for not having listened. Our Lord took their query as a teaching opportunity. Lightning? That’s not the way to spread the gospel, He told them: “The Son of Man has come not to destroy but to save!” So, he gave the pair a half-humorous nickname, the “Boanerges”, that is, the “Sons of Thunder.” Jesus’ way of conversion would always be the gentler way. (Could we even use Jesus’ admonition today as an argument against capital punishment?)

The brothers also showed their inexperience on another occasion. One day, their mother (Salome?), with the aggressiveness that mothers sometimes show regarding their children, asked Our Lord to promise that when He went to heaven He would seat her boys in the places of honor on either side of Himself. Unfortunately, the boys went along with their mother’s ambitious request, to the chagrin of the other disciples. Jesus asked the pair if they could drink the cup offering before He reached his glory. They brashly replied, “We can!” You will indeed drink that cup, He promised, but only His Father could assign them their thrones in heaven.

What James and John obviously needed was a course in humility. Jesus therefore saw to it that they and Peter shared some of the most impressive episodes of his career. James was on hand when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. He was a witness when Jesus raised from the dead the daughter of Jairus. When Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor, James was one of the three disciples present. And when Jesus went to Gethsemane the night of His arrest, He took Peter and James and John aside with Him while He prayed in agony. James had not learned, even then, the secret of self-giving. Heavy-eyed in Gethsemane, he, like the rest of the twelve, abandoned Jesus when He was arrested. But with the descent of the Holy Spirit, swaggering James the Greater matured into a hero.

In the primitive Church, St. James’s vigorous leadership brought to him the cup of suffering that Jesus had promised. In 44 AD, James was captured and beheaded; thus becoming the first of the apostles to die. Clement of Alexandria, writing about 150 years later, relates a plausible story about James’s death. He says that the man who had accused him before Herod was so impressed by James’s great courage that he, too, proclaimed himself a Christian and joined the apostle, ready to die with him. He asked the forgiveness of the saint for his betrayal. James said, “Peace be with you”; and they died together. Thus, the “son of thunder” had finally learned his lesson: we win others to the Faith not by violence but by love.

The Spanish have long claimed that while alive St. James preached in their country. This seems unlikely. But, at least by the ninth century the relics of St. James were enshrined at Compostela in northwest Spain. The shrine of Santiago (St. James) de Compostela became, with Jerusalem and Rome, the third greatest and most popular shrine in all Christendom. St. James also became the Spanish national patron and protector. During Spain’s crusades against the invading Moors, the war cry of the crusading soldiers was “Santiago!”

-- Father Robert F. McNamara