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The Feast of St. James
July 27, 2014

Click here to listen to this homily (.mp3 file)

     When I first came to the Cathedral I didn’t know a whole lot about our patron, St. James.  I know more now but, to be honest, I’m not sure there’s much, if anything, that I haven’t already shared with you on this feast in past years.  So if what I say sounds familiar, there’s probably a good reason!

     St. James. In John’s gospel he is identified as the brother of John and a son of Zebedee. Matthew and Mark tell us that the two brothers were fishermen, and Luke adds the detail that they were fishing partners of Simon Peter. All three of them witnessed an extraordinary catch of fish one day on the Sea of Galilee, and heard Jesus tell them that, from then on, it was people they would be catching, not fish.

     For reasons we can only guess at, James, along with Peter and John, were invited by Jesus’ into his inner circle. The three were the only ones with Jesus when he raised Peter’s mother-in-law from her sickbed and when he raised the little daughter of Jairus from her deathlike sleep. They were the only ones to climb the mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and get a glimpse of his glory; and they were the only ones Jesus wanted close by him in his dark agony in Gethsemane.  And then there’s this final detail about James that we got from today’s reading from The Acts of the Apostles: when King Herod began to persecute certain members of the church at Jerusalem, James became his most prominent victim. He had James put to death by the sword whereas he only had Peter arrested and thrown into prison. 

     But I passed over one other important part of the story of James.  It’s the one we heard in today’s gospel when his mother approached Jesus to ask that her sons might get special treatment for leaving all and following him. The perfect Jewish mother! That’s how Matthew tells the story, anyway; Mark tells it a little differently.  Mark leaves the mother out of the picture and says that James and John asked for themselves.  But both Matthew and Mark agree that the request came – rather incongruously -- right on the heels of Jesus’ third prediction of his coming passion and death.  And both say that Jesus answered their bold request – and it was a bold request -- by reminding them of the cup of suffering he was about to drink.  It was Jesus’ way of saying that the only promise they were going to get from him was the promise of future suffering.

     So, there we have it: a sketchy but significant portrait of our patron, St. James.  It may not be a full-blown portrait ready for a museum but there are enough brush strokes to tell us who James was and what his life was like in that inner circle of Jesus’ followers.  There were moments of wonder and moments of sadness, glorious moments and very sobering moments. And ultimately there was the sword.  That’s the way it was for James and for most of the apostles and, except for the sword, it’s the way it is for everyone who accepts the call of Jesus to come, follow him - and that includes, of course, the likes of you and me.

     The reading from Second Corinthians filled out this picture nicely, and quite graphically.  St. Paul speaks eloquently of the apostolic calling by telling what it had meant for him. He begins by acknowledging that all who follow Christ are no more than “earthen vessels,” vessels of clay.   That’s to make it clear, he says, that whatever we achieve is God’s work and not ours.  And then he recites this powerful litany of the hardships and the hopes of all who follow Christ.  “We are,” Paul says, “afflicted in every way possible, but never crushed, we are full of doubts but we never despair, persecuted, but we are never abandoned, struck down but never destroyed.  Continually we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus.”

     And that takes us right back to that cup of suffering Jesus promised James and his brother John.  Little knowing what they were saying, they said they could drink it, and drink it they did.

     And you and I?  Before we sign up we ought to be sure of what we’re signing up for because suffering of one sort or another will be part of the bargain.  But I shouldn’t have said, ‘before we sign up’ because we have already signed up!  Long ago, in our baptism, we were initiated into the very death of Christ – buried together with him, as St. Paul puts it – and ever since then we have been on a journey with Christ through death to life.

     That journey is different for each of us but for every one of us it involves death of one sort or another: loss, tragedy, heartache, personal limitation –- death comes in many forms.  And we’ve probably looked for shortcuts. I know I have. Maybe we’ve run from the cross more than we’ve embraced it. We’re human, after all. But little by little, step by step, by fits and starts, trial and error, we are doing our best to live out our Christian calling, and in the process, we are learning what James had to learn: how to follow and how to drink the cup of suffering.

     And that brings us right to this moment. As we approach the Eucharistic table – as we will very shortly -- our drinking from the cup will ring true only if we let go any grandiose dreams of special treatment or personal exemption and embrace, along with St. James, the humble way of Jesus who came, “not to be served by others but to serve,” Jesus who is “in our midst as one who serves.”

Father Michael G. Ryan




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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