James, the Bro of the Lord

"James the Less" by El Greco, 16th Century

“James the Less” by El Greco, 16th Century

Our apostle for this week is St. James. No, not that one, the other one – St. James the Lesser. It’s not the greatest nickname, but it was used to distinguish him from the other St. James, the son of Zebedee, who we learned about a short time ago. St. James the Lesser was also called James the Just, a much better nickname I would say, and was the son of Alphaeus.

St. James is sometimes referred to as the “brother of the Lord.” This can sometimes be deceiving for us, because we often think of “brother” as a biological term. In ancient Jewish culture, however, this phrase could be interpreted a number of ways other than being an actual biological brother of Jesus. James’ mother, who was also named Mary (this is starting to get confusing, isn’t it), was either a sister or a close relative to the Blessed Mother, and so according to the custom of the time, James would be referred to as the “brother of Jesus.”

After the Resurrection, St. James was made the first bishop of Jerusalem, taking care of the infant Church in what seemed a pretty prestigious honor. Tradition holds that he was the author of the Letter of James in the New Testament. Now, this isn’t specifically stated in the letter, but evidence suggests that it was written some time after St. Paul’s writings, meaning that it was probably written around 59 AD. Well, the other St. James had been dead for 14 years by that point, so there you go! Also, many of the early Fathers of the Church support the claim.

The Letter of James was written against some of those who were preaching and teaching things about Jesus that weren’t true, and abusing some of the teachings that had gone before, especially from St. Paul. It is a very interesting and valuable letter. It much of the basis for our understanding of the relationship between faith and works, that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (2:17) It also discusses the means to live a holy life, and makes specific reference to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick: “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord.” (5:14)

And here is a cool icon of St. James celebrating Mass!

And here is a cool icon of St. James celebrating Mass!

St. James was martyred in Jerusalem – we know that much. But what is interesting is that one of the sources we have isn’t a religious source, but the famous secular historian Josephus, who himself was a Jew. Apparently, St. James was accused of violating the Jewish Law in Jerusalem. The Roman procurator at the time had just died, and the new one had not yet arrived in office, so the high priest took advantage of the confusion to condemn James to death by stoning. And so St. James shared the crown of martyrdom, just as so many other apostles had done before.

Really not as much is known about St. James the Just than other apostles, and there certainly aren’t as many fantastic legends. But what we do know is that James was one of the human men who became the foundation of the Church. This wasn’t an achievement of St. James by his own right, but as a gift from God, and he was able to share more deeply in Christ’s life through his own suffering. Let’s pray that we too can be instruments of grace for Christ to use and build up his Church!

Doubt Once, and Those Disciples Never Let You Forget It

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas By Caravaggio

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
By Caravaggio

The next apostle on our list is St. Thomas, who we are all very familiar with. We really don’t know how he was called, but we know that he was originally a Jew and that he left it all to follow Jesus. He is mentioned briefly here and there throughout the Gospels.

But of course, what everyone knows St. Thomas for is his reaction to the Resurrection. When all his brothers told him that they had seen the Lord, he refused to believe until he touched Jesus himself and felt his wounds. Well, I guess he opened his big mouth too far, because that’s exactly what happened!

Say what you will about “Doubting Thomas”, but that experience clearly changed him. His immediate response was, “My Lord and my God!”, but that was only the beginning. Whereas many of the apostles went north and west to preach to the people of Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, St. Thomas went to the almost complete geographical and cultural opposite. He started going north through Syria to Edessa (southern Turkey), but then made a u-turn and headed south. He preached to the Parthians, Persians, and Medes through what is now Iran, and kept going south to India.

Tradition tells us that St. Thomas encountered King Gondophernes (a historical king featured on ancient coins!), and eventually converted him and his brother. The king must have wanted to put Thomas to work, because he was put in charge of building projects, several of which were churches. Apparently, this didn’t sit well with a number of the local priests, because they chased him up a mountain (now called St. Thomas Mount – original, I know), and killed him with a lance. His body was buried at the church he built in Mylapore, India. The tomb remains there even to today, although a significant portion of the relics were moved back to Edessa.

Much of the story about St. Thomas in India comes from the Acts of Thomas, which is pretty shifty, and probably not very reliable. It was probably written by Gnostics, who tried to incorporate a warped form of Christianity into their mystical religion. What is true, however, is that later missionaries found a large number of Christians that had been in India for a very long time, some of whom still speak Syriac, a dialect of the language that St. Thomas probably spoke. Even Marco Polo visited the tomb of St. Thomas on his journeys and learned the stories, so if nothing else, there is probably a kernel of truth to these legends.

So what can we learn from St. Thomas? One thing is that as doubtful or weak as we might consider St. Thomas, Jesus doesn’t pick worthless men and women to do his work. St. Thomas’s human weakness, and our human weaknesses as well, point out the fact that real Christian holiness is a gift from God, not something we do on our own. God uses our doubt and weaknesses to transform us, and to do great things through us, just as he did through St. Thomas. Let us entrust ourselves even more to God through the prayers of St. Thomas, that he would make us better disciples!

Jesus’ Favorite…Er, Beloved Disciple

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

The next apostle up on our list is St. John, the brother of last week’s saint, St. James the Greater. St. John is an Evangelist, literally from Greek a “giver of good news”. Multiple early Church Fathers support the claim that St. John was the author of the 4th gospel, the Gospel of John (hence the name?), written before 95 AD.

John’s gospel is the same story as the others, obviously, but goes about recounting it in a very different way. It is a much more reflective, symbolic, and theological approach. In the eastern Churches, this gives him the name St. John the Theologian. In some ways, he seems to presuppose things already in the other gospels. For example, in John’s gospel, Jesus never says the words “This is my body” or “This is my blood.” Instead, John presupposes that and focuses on the meaning of the Eucharist – service (washing of the feet) and sacrifice (blood flowing from Jesus’ side on the Cross).

Anyway, in his own gospel, John refers to himself as the “beloved disciple”. He defines himself not by his own achievements, but by his relationship to Jesus. He is one of the core group of disciples, but had a special place in Jesus’ heart. We hear that he rested his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper, and that he was the only apostle not to abandon Jesus. With Peter, he is the first to receive news of the Resurrection and go to the tomb, and we hear that “he saw, and believed.”

One of the greatest privileges that St. John was entrusted with was the care of Jesus’ mother – “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.” The tradition is that he cared for her in Jerusalem, and later in Ephesus in present-day Turkey. In fact, an ancient house in Ephesus is still commemorated as the home of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

You might recall from last week that it was John, along with his brother James, who had inquired about being seated at Jesus’ side, and that he would indeed drink the cup of suffering. John wasn’t martyred like his brother, but he experienced suffering in a different way. He supervised and governed the Church in Asia Minor (Turkey), and when persecutions broke out under the Emperor Domitian, was taken to Rome and boiled in oil! Or at least they tried, to boil him in oil, but nothing happened! He walked out of it, and the legend says that all the spectators in the Coliseum who witnessed the miracle were instantly converted. I suppose I would be too if I just saw some guy walk out of a vat of boiling oil!

Coptic Icon of St. John on the island of Patmos

Coptic Icon of St. John on the island of Patmos

St. John was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation, before returning to Ephesus, where his earthly life came to an end. For 900 years, the Basilica of St. John stood over his tomb, until it was destroyed by invading armies.

St. John was indeed the “beloved disciple,” and it is said that his parishioners grew tired of his sermons, because they relentlessly emphasized the need to “love one another.” But truly, we can see the courage and zeal that comes from a heart that knows God’s love for itself and gives entirely out of love for others. Do we know that love for ourselves? How do we live it? May St. John inspire us and pray for us, so that we too can claim our identity as beloved disciples!

St. James the Awesome (or the Greater, whatever…)

Statue of St. James the Greater at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome

Statue of St. James the Greater at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome

As we move on to the next of our apostles, we focus on St. James the Greater. He is usually called “the Greater” to distinguish him from the other St. James among the apostles. He was the son of Zebedee and the brother of St. John, and in fact, they were all together on the seashore when Jesus called James and John to follow him. St. James was part of the core group of the apostles, along with St. Peter and St. John, and was one of the few chosen to witness the Transfiguration.

The most noteworthy occasion where St. James finds his name in the Gospels was when he had the…ahem… *boldness* to request that he and his brother would stand at Jesus’ left and right in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus asked them, “Can you drink the chalice that I drink?” Now remember, this is the same chalice that Jesus asked would pass from him at Gethsemane before the Passion – the chalice of suffering. Confidently, James said he could! What a great and zealous faith! And of course, Jesus assured him that he would indeed share in that chalice.

Moving forward, according to tradition, St. James travelled to Spain to preach the Gospel after the Ascension. He may have been having a pretty tough time doing so (maybe he didn’t pay attention to his Spanish classes, although I guess Spanish didn’t exist yet). Near present-day Zaragoza, he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a pillar where she encouraged him and assured him that his efforts would not be in vain. Inspired, James returned to Judea, which speaking of that chalice…

James would drink the chalice of suffering, as he was the first of the apostles to share it and the glory that Christ promised along with it. The Acts of the Apostles relates that Herod Agrippa, the nephew of the Herod who had questioned Jesus, “killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2)

Stjacquescompostelle1Supposedly, after his martyrdom, his body was claimed by his loving followers and returned to Spain, where he was buried at the site of the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For over 1000 years, pilgrims have travelled to the cathedral to venerate St. James’ relics via the Way of St. James. There are several points of origin on this pilgrimage, but the Way of St. James is a minimum of 100 km, and has become one of the greatest Christian pilgrimages. In fact, the 2010 World Cup winners from Spain dedicated their win to St. James, and several of the players made the Way of St. James in gratitude!

Ultimately, I think the example of St. James invites us to think about how willing we are to drink the chalice of suffering offered to us by Christ. The Way of St. James can be an analogy for us in that sense. The journey of discipleship is long and hard, and we have to be sure we prepare ourselves well during this life. But after the suffering of the journey, we arrive at the fullness of joy at the end of the pilgrimage. For the Way of St. James, it’s the glorious cathedral and relics; for our pilgrimage of faith, it is the joy of heaven. Are we willing to drink the chalice of suffering in order to attain the overflowing chalice of joy?

(By the way, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is known for it’s GIGANTIC incense thurible.  Check out the video below.  I asked our pastor if we could get one, but it might be out of our budget…for now…)

That One Guy Who Was St. Peter’s Brother

Statue of St. Andrew St. Peter's Basilica Vatican City

Statue of St. Andrew
St. Peter’s Basilica
Vatican City

So what do we know about St. Andrew? Umm…I guess he’s patron saint of Scotland, and therefore patron saint of golf? Hence, we get the famous St. Andrew’s Golf Course. But really, what else?

The point is that there’s not much we know about him. We do know that he was the brother of Simon Peter. I guess he’s kind of like Shelley Duncan, the brother of former Cardinal outfielder Chris Duncan. Shelley was a great player in his own right for the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians (ok, maybe not a “great” player), but to St. Louisans, he will forever be known as Chris Duncan’s brother and Dave Duncan’s son.

But St. Andrew was actually pretty important among the apostles. There are two versions of his call. The first, from the Gospel of Matthew, is that he was fishing with his brother Simon Peter when Jesus called them to be fishers of men. In the Gospel of John, however, he was a disciple of St. John the Baptist, and when St. John pointed out Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” St. Andrew knew that Jesus was worth following. He asked Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And Jesus responded in that beautiful and teasing invitation, “Come and see.”

What about after the Ascension? Now we’re getting into some fuzzy area. Various church historians like Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea tell us that St. Andrew preached his way to north of the Black Sea, through modern-day Russia and Ukraine. He then went across to Byzantium, modern-day Constantinople/Istanbul, and over to Macedonia and Greece.

One common point of agreement is that St. Andrew was crucified in Patras, Greece. The non-canonical Acts of Andrew tells us that he was tied, not nailed to the cross, and remained there for two days, preaching and converting those who listened to him, until he finally gave up his spirit. Legends have it that St. Andrew asked to be crucified in a different way than Jesus out of respect, and was tied to an X-shaped cross, which to this day, is called a St. Andrew Cross. In 1964, in an outreach to our Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters, Pope Paul VI returned the relics of St. Andrew from the Vatican to the Basilica of St. Andrew in Patras, Greece, where we can still see them today.

So back to the original question, what do we know about St. Andrew? Not much at all. The Gospels give us little about his holiness. But he was an apostle, and that is enough. He was called personally to “come and see”, and then to proclaim the Good News, sharing in Jesus’ life and ultimately, his death. Holiness today is no different. It’s a call to be a follower, to “come and see.” Let’s pray for the intercession of St. Andrew today, that we would respond to that invitation, and then spread that message of hope with our lives.