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The Feast of St. James
during the coronavirus pandemic
July 26, 2020

Click here to watch Father Ryan give this homily. The homily begins at 26:00.

    “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us….”  St. Paul’s image of an “earthen vessel” in today’s reading from Second Corinthians has its origins in the great Genesis creation story where God creates us humans from the clay of the earth.  It has always been a favorite of mine. I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s because, in my more honest moments, I see how well it describes me!

     Happily, Jesus has a special place in his heart for earthen vessels. Why else would he have spent so much time with tax collectors and sinners?  Why else would he have surrounded himself with the apostles he did?  Each one of those twelve, beginning with Peter, and including our great patron, St. James, was every inch an earthen vessel.

     It’s true that we call St. James “the greater,” but that’s only because there was a second James among the Twelve and tradition settled on that way of distinguishing between the two. But we shouldn’t be misled by the title: being “the greater” didn’t make James any greater than the others, or any less an earthen vessel.

     Today’s gospel story gives ample evidence of that.  Along with his brother John, James approached Jesus to make a bold request.  “See to it,” they said, “that we sit, one at your right, the other at your left, when you come in your glory.”    We can be forgiven for wondering, ‘who did they think they were, anyway?’ because that’s exactly how the other ten reacted. They became “indignant,” Mark tells us.  A strong word, but not a surprising one.

     Now, it’s worth noting that Matthew’s telling of this story differs from Mark’s.  Matthew says that it was the mother of James and John who made the request on behalf of her sons --forever providing a patron for all good Jewish mothers. So who does get the blame? It doesn’t really matter. There was probably enough blame to go around and if, indeed, it was the mother who made the request, I’m guessing her sons didn’t protest too much!

     Earthen vessels they were, and Jesus knew it. Notice how gently he treats them -- lest they shatter as earthen vessels easily do. Instead of scolding the two, Jesus decides to teach a lesson to all twelve, challenging each of them, but putting no one down. He lets them know that he is inviting them into something altogether new and unheard of.

     ‘You want to be great?’ he asks. Then let go of your grandiose dreams of thrones in glory and become like me: a servant not a sovereign. Learn to forget yourselves and to serve others. Do as I do: lay down your lives for others, for “the Son of Man has come, not to be served but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for the many.” 

     Years ago, when I first came to St. James, I didn’t give a lot of thought to our patron saint. My thoughts were more about the parish and the Cathedral that just happened to be named for St. James. I look at that differently now. That’s because in many ways, the story of St. James has become the story of the Cathedral, and the story of each of us. Being a cathedral is kind of a glorious thing, I guess you could say, and this is a pretty glorious place. But it’s not about glory, is it?  It’s about service. And that’s what we’ve made of this place: a community of people whose first name is St. James and whose middle name is service. The words up there over our altar have, in many ways, become our parish motto, and they say it all. They are Jesus’ own words, and they became James’ words, and now they have become our words: “I am in your midst as one who serves.”

     Most of us know the story and the great legends of St. James; we’re familiar with the tradition that he went as far as the far northwest corner of Spain to preach the gospel, forever earning for himself the title, ‘patron of pilgrims.’ But as I see it, the most important pilgrimage James made was more personal than geographical. His real pilgrimage was the one he made from seeking a throne in glory to living a life poured out in the service of others.

     Today, pilgrims from all over the world follow in St. James’ footsteps by doing the Camino: taking time out of their lives to make the long and demanding trek from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic, crossing northern Spain all the way to Santiago de Compostela.  They go for many different reasons – religious, spiritual, physical, psychological, personal.  A motley crew they are, too, but no more motley than we, no more motley than the Church.

     My friends, not all of us are able to travel to Spain and make the great Camino but, on this, our patronal feast day, I would challenge you and encourage you to make the ‘Camino’ – the journey St. James made when he let go of selfish dreams and began to dream more generous dreams of serving others. This is a journey we can all make – a journey we must all make. And it’s a journey that – if we make it - will be the making of us, just as the Eucharist which this wonderful group of young people are receiving today for the first time, will be the making of them!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303