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The Feast of St. James
July 25, 2021

Watch this homily! (Begins at 34:50)

   “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us….”  That image of an “earthen vessel” with its origins in the Genesis creation story where God creates us humans from the clay of the earth, has always appealed to me.  I think it’s because, in my more honest moments, I relate to it quite personally. And maybe you do, too. And that’s a good thing because Jesus seems to have a special place in his heart for earthen vessels. Why else would he have kept the company did? 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 an earthen vessel.

     The Church refers to St. James, our patron, as “the greater.” That’s because there was another James among the Twelve and, because the gospel writers give him a higher profile, tradition settled on that as a way of distinguishing the two of them. But we shouldn’t be misled by the title: being “the greater” didn’t make James any greater than the others, and it certainly didn’t make him 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 very bold, ambitious 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 when Matthew tells this story in his gospel, he tells it a little differently.  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 – the sons or the mother? We don’t know. There was probably enough to go around, and if, indeed, it was the mother who made the request, I’m guessing it wasn’t without at least the tacit approval of her sons.

     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 uses the moment to teach a lesson to the twelve, challenging each of them but putting no one of them down. Instead, 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: become a servant not a sovereign. Forget yourselves and serve others. Do as I do: lay down your lives for others; be like the Son of Man has come, “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life in ransom for the many.”

     Years ago, when I first came to St. James, I didn’t give much thought to the saint - only to the parish and the Cathedral. St. James just happened to be its name. I look at that differently now. That’s because in many ways, the story of the saint is 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, humble service. And that’s what you have made of this place: a community of people whose first name is St. James and whose middle name is service.  Those gospel words over our altar have, in many ways, become our parish motto. They say it all. They are Jesus’ own words, and they became James’ words, and now they have become ours: “I am in your midst as one who serves.” 

     If you know the story and the great legends of St. James, you are familiar with the tradition that he went as far as the Northwest corner of Spain to preach the gospel, forever earning for himself the title, patron of pilgrims. But as I see it, James actually made two great pilgrimages in his life and the one to Spain to preach the gospel was minor when compared to the one he made from thrones in glory to a life in the service of others.

     Today, pilgrims from all over the world make the trek to Santiago de Compostela to pray at the tomb of St. James. A good number of you have done it and I know of one parishioner who is doing it right now. But, realistically, it’s not a pilgrimage most of us will be able to make, but there is such a thing as a pilgrimage of the heart and this is the perfect year for that because 2021 is a Jubilee Year. That happens every time the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday. Of course, the fact that this is a jubilee year doesn’t make the feast any greater (any more than calling James ‘the greater’ makes him any greater), but perhaps it can make us stand a little taller, pray our prayers a little more fervently, and sing our hymns and acclamations a little louder. And most of all, perhaps it can challenge us to roll up our sleeves a little higher as we do what James did: let go the dreams of glory and make the really long and arduous pilgrimage from selfishness to the selfless service of others. It all starts right here at the table of the Eucharist!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303