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The Feast of St. James
July 23, 2023

Watch this homily! (Begins at 37:00)

      There’s something special about St. James. Of the twelve apostles – next to St. Peter – he may have the biggest following. Peter has a great basilica named for him, it’s true – built over the place on the Vatican Hill where he was put to death – a basilica we think of as the geographical center of the Catholic Church. But St. James has a great basilica named for him, too: at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where legend says that he once preached the gospel and later was buried, and where pilgrims have been flocking to pray ever since the ninth century.

     There’s something special about St. James.  His tomb and his story have attracted an incredibly diverse procession of pilgrims down through the ages: the emperor Charlemagne; wave upon wave of medieval Christians who went to Compostela when they couldn’t get to Rome or the Holy Land; the great 18th-century Anglican reformer and hymn writer, Charles Wesley, who never went to Compostela but honored St. James with one of his many hymns; and then there are the countless contemporary pilgrims from all over the world, believers and non-believers alike, who take a month or more out of their lives to walk the Camino, the road to Santiago de Compostela, hoping in the process to discover their deepest selves.

     There is something special about St. James! For us, St. James is special because he is our patron saint, and a very approachable saint he is because, unlike some saints who seem super-human, there is no doubt St. James’ humanity. St. James is a hero but a very human hero. Like his brother John, James was a fisherman, but I find it hard to think of John with the smell of fish about him – John seems too other-worldly, too spiritual for that. But not James. I can picture James straining at the nets, hauling in the catch, salty in language as well as in smell! Jesus called James and John “the sons of thunder,” but it’s easier to picture James as the one with the thundering temper.

     James was a hero but a human one. He, along with John and Peter, had those privileged moments with Jesus that were denied the other nine. They were the ‘inner circle’ who got to see great things. They got to see Jesus raise the daughter of Jairus from the dead, and Jesus transfigured on the mountain top, and Jesus in his agony and sweat in Gethsemane. Privileged moments, divine moments, even. A more human moment came in today’s gospel when the mother of James and John played the perfect Jewish mother by trying to snag seats in glory for her sons, the apostles. Not that the two sons were entirely disinterested in the matter! Depending on whose gospel you read, the mother was the instigator, or the two boys made the request on their own.  Human heroes, in any case!

     Another human moment for James was the moment of Jesus’ passion and death. James has a very low profile here.  So low that he disappears. Not Peter. Peter fled but then snuck back long enough to deny his master, later dissolving into tears of repentance. And John, alone among the apostles, stood at the foot of the cross along with Mary. But James is nowhere to be found. I find something very human in that – something I can relate to. Can you?

     Most of the rest of James’ story – except for the story of his death at the hands of King Herod that we heard in today’s reading from Acts – is legend, a legend so powerful that for twelve-hundred years it has prompted an endless procession of pilgrims to Compostela, the Field of Stars, in a remote corner of Spain.

     And that leads me to the other thing that makes St. James so special.  Not only does he appeal to our need for a very human hero, he also speaks to the pilgrim in each of us.  For the Church honors St. James as the patron saint of pilgrims.

     One of the great metaphors for the life of faith is the metaphor of the pilgrimage. Life is a pilgrimage and it can sometimes be a lonely one. Is it surprising, then, that people should seek a partner and a patron on that pilgrimage? And is it surprising that they should turn to James who was himself a pilgrim, James, who took to heart Christ’s command to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth, journeying to far off Spain to preach the gospel, and then journeying back to Jerusalem where he fell to Herod’s sword?

     Jesus’ words in today’s gospel come to mind: “Can you drink of the cup of suffering I drink from?” James answered yes to that question with the same naïve enthusiasm he had expressed for a privileged place at Christ’s right hand in the kingdom.  And the cup of suffering he did drink: his path to the kingdom was anything but smooth: it was a steep climb. And ours can be, too, my friends. But how good it is to make it in the company of James, our patron, stopping along the way, as we do now, for the powerful, refreshing food of pilgrims, the Blessed Eucharist, which gives us a taste even now of the end of the great pilgrimage, the banquet which will last forever!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303