On July 25th, we celebrate the feast day of St. James the Apostle. St. James and his brother John were the sons of Zebedee. Jesus referred to these brothers as the “Sons of Thunder,” most likely due to their penchant for rash, emotional reactions and decisions. St. James teaches us the importance of humility and of promptly responding to God’s call, regardless of the securities we may leave behind in doing so. He was the first apostle to die a martyr’s death. We can look to his zeal for following Christ and his courage in spreading the faith in difficult times as examples for our own spiritual lives.
We remember from Scripture that St. James and St. John initially asked Jesus if they could be placed on either side of him in his heavenly kingdom. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to reiterate to the disciples the importance of servant leadership. Jesus responds, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
From this lesson and Jesus’ previous parable of The Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), we learn that the faithful are invited to receive the ultimate reward of eternal life with our Father in heaven. Jesus reminds us that we shouldn’t get caught up in the earthly understanding of rankings, but can all share in the glory of God in heaven.
We also learn from this example with St. James and St. John that serving others is how we are called to love our neighbors. As 1 Corinthians 13:3 says, “If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Jesus asks us to rely on him and not on others’ recognition of our sacrifices.
In the New Testament, we often hear of St. James mentioned with Sts. John and Peter. These three disciples were privileged to be present at many of the significant moments in Jesus’ ministry on earth, including the Transfiguration and Agony in the Garden. The Holy Spirit’s presence within the apostles at Pentecost was a turning point for St. James and the other disciples because it showed them the true nature of Jesus’ mission and the meaning of his sacrifice on the cross (Benedict XVI, General Audience, June 21, 2006). From there, James and the other apostles went out to all the nations, preaching Jesus and his Gospel message.
James’ life after Pentecost symbolizes the pilgrimage of the Christian journey (Benedict XVI, General Audience, June 21, 2006). His journey is one of the reasons he is considered the patron saint of pilgrim travelers and was recognized as a patron saint of World Youth Day 2016. In fact, the path to Santiago de Compostela, where St. James is buried in northwestern Spain, was one of the most traveled pilgrim routes during Medieval times after Rome and Jerusalem. Many people continue to make this pilgrimage today and to seek the guidance of St. James. We can call upon him to protect us during our journeys and to intercede for us for our personal conversions of heart before, during, and after our travels. We are called to follow Jesus as St. James did, knowing that even through life’s difficulties, we are walking along God’s path for us together with Christ.
Through the example of St. James the Apostle, we see that following Jesus can have its difficulties through persecution and other hardships, but that our eternal reward is life in heaven with him. St. James’ story encourages us to leave our comparisons to others behind, fully trust in God, and show enthusiasm for Jesus Christ even when it is difficult.
Questions for Reflection: Have you ever embarked on a pilgrimage? How did it deepen your spirituality? What are some ways we might be called to grow in our humility as we practice servant leadership in following Christ?