The Holy Apostles: St. James the Just

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

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, St. James the Greater 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)

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!

The Holy Apostles: St. Thomas

"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.

St. Thomas Basilica in Mylapore, India Site of the Tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle
St. Thomas Basilica in Mylapore, India
Site of the Tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle

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 body 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 weakness as well, points out the fact that real Christian holiness is a gift from God, not something we do on our own.  God uses our doubt and weakness to transform us, and to do great things through us, just as he did through St. Thomas and his travels.  Let us entrust ourselves even more to God through the prayers of St. Thomas, that he would make us better disciples!

Homily From the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Apostle St. Paul by El Greco
Apostle St. Paul
by El Greco

Normally, I try to preach mostly on the Gospel, following the life of Christ and trying to bring out what message I can, but today’s second reading is just too good.  Well, that, and of the things I read in preparing for the homily, the stuff from the second reading was better.  It’s a great reading though, and one that gives shape to a lot of our Catholic way of life.

St. Paul is trying to make a distinction here between faith and works.  He tells us that “salvation comes from faith in Christ.”  Faith is what brings us into the right relationship and friendship with God that we all seek.  It might seem kind of like common sense to us, but it was a little different from what Jewish leaders were saying at the time.  They believed in what St. Paul calls the “works of the Law,” that if they could just follow the Law perfectly, (the 10 commandments and the other things derived from them in the first 5 books of the Bible) they would be in the right relationship with God.

We forget that in the earliest days of the Church, many people were converts from Judaism, but at first, they didn’t really see themselves as terribly different than the Jews.  They believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism, but many of the things they were doing were just following what they did before.  That’s what St. Paul was preaching against.  The Christians in Galatia had heard his message, but when he moved on, many of the Jewish Christians just went back to doing their old thing.  And when he heard about this, St. Paul was not happy at all.  The Letter to the Galatians is actually one of the most anger-filled books of the Bible.  Actually, a few verses later than our reading today, St. Paul calls them “stupid Galatians”, but we figured that wasn’t really the best reading for people at Sunday Mass.  But he does respond directly: “We know that a person is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Now that was a long time ago, but I think we need to hear this as much as the Galatians did.  Some things never change.  We are still as susceptible to the same temptations as the Galatians, the same as the Israelites, the same as Adam and Eve.  It’s the temptation of trying to achieve happiness through our own efforts.  It’s the temptation of thinking of our lives as a kind of cooking recipe.  It’s just the perfect combination of everything: a tablespoon of religion here, a half cup of popularity there, some money, and then just a dash of prestige, and voila! we make our own heaven on earth.  But that’s a lie.  St. Paul says that “if justification comes through the law,” basically, if happiness and peace come through our own efforts, “then Christ died for nothing.”  Happiness and fulfillment and fruitfulness come from Christ alone, and in our friendship with him.

I love coffee cups, and I have all sorts of strange ones.  I have a pink coffee cup given to me by the Pink Sisters, a black Kenrick-Glennon Seminary coffee mug, two-handled coffee mugs (the same used by this order of Carmelite monks in Wyoming), a tea cup celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and another for her anniversary last year, Star Wars mugs, plain mugs, and of course, my Mizzou mug.  Like I said, I’m a big fan of coffee mugs – but at 5:00 in the morning, I really don’t care what it looks like, as long as it has coffee in it.  You see, as fancy and as awesome as my coffee mugs are, what matters is the coffee, not the cup.  It’s kind of a nice illustration of St. Paul’s point.  With our own efforts in life, all we can do is make coffee mugs.  Jobs, prestige, money, popularity and appearances – these are great, and good for you if you have them, but these are just the cup, the outside, and the container of life.  No mere cup, even the coolest or fanciest, is going to satisfy your thirst on its own.  What matters more than anything, is that our cups are filled with the right drink – with Christ.

The best situation is when the container of our lives, the outward appearances, the things we do, the “works of the Law” to use St. Paul’s expression, reflect what is going on inside ourselves.  Coffee mugs were a good analogy, but maybe a chalice is a better one for this.  The chalice is valuable, but for the Church, it is valuable for what it holds, not because of what it is.  Chalices are designed to reflect that and call attention to it.  They are made of gold or other precious metals, they have holy images, crosses, or other sacred words etched into them.  Everyone knows that as beautiful as these chalices are, they are ultimately designed for a sacred purpose.

The same should be said of us.  It’s ok to have things like prestige and popularity and wealth.  Those are great blessings.  We would encourage you to do works – acts of charity to other people, like the group from our parish that just left to go to Belize.  But remember, those are simply the containers for the greater gift going on inside.  When people see us, can they tell what is within the container?

Homily From the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“Does God really care?”  That’s one of the first questions that we can begin to ask when things start to get really bad.  It’s easy to recognize your blessings when things are going really well, but when they turn south, we start to wonder where God is.  And if we think of God as an impersonal being, it can easily lead us to that question.  “Does God really care?”

In our first reading today, Jesus is travelling, and he approaches a funeral procession in the city of Nain.  In ancient times, funerals were a lot more public than they are today.  Large crowds would gather and carry the body of the deceased person out to the cemetery outside the city walls.  Funerals are always pretty sad occasions, but especially in the case we have in the Gospel.  This was the funeral of a young man, who was the only son of his mother, who herself was a widow.  Basically, he was all that she had.  She had nothing else left.  And so when they buried him, she would have nothing else left to live for.  She was basically walking to the place where she would give away the last thing meaningful to her life.

And so in the story, Jesus has compassion on her.  That English word compassion is nice, and from it’s Latin roots, it literally means to suffer with, which is what Christ is doing.  But the Greek word that is used in this case means something so much more.  It means that his sorrow was so deep for her that it wells up from his deepest being – the Greek word says from his bowels.  Think about the pit in your stomach as you watch a really sad movie or the last episode in the 6th season of LOST.  Jesus has sorrow for her.

So he tries to tell her, “Don’t cry,” but it falls on her as empty words.  He is trying to be there for her, to say something comforting, but she doesn’t feel the connection.  After all, she is going to bury her son.  So he decides to go deeper into her sorrow and tells the young man, “Arise.”  And of course, the miracle happens as we hear; he is risen.  But he is not just resurrected and brought back to life, but he is restored as a son, as the Gospel tells us Jesus “gave him to his mother.”  In some ways, I think the miracle focused on here is not so much the miracle of the raising of this young man, but the miracle with the mother.  The miracle is performed for her because Jesus deeply cares about her suffering, and through it, she again finds meaning for her life.

The same is true for us.  When we are suffering, Jesus does speak to us to offer words of comfort and peace.  I mean, he left us 73 books worth of it!  But sometimes, as genuine as those words are, and as loving as they are, they fall on us as empty words.  Christ calls us deeper though.  He calls us to open ourselves to receive his comfort personally.

In a lot of European churches, you’ll find a lot of altars decorated with paintings of the crucifixion, and other scenes from the Lord’s passion and death, and most of the time, they are portrayed with a lot of realism.  His wounds are bleeding, his face is contorted in pain, Mary and the soldiers are waiting there at the foot of the cross.  But sometimes, you’ll look at those paintings and find something that isn’t quite so realistic.  For example, in the background of the scene, instead of showing Jerusalem or Judea or whatever, you’ll find Ravenna or the port of London or something.  And then, mixed in with the soldiers and the disciples, you’ll find someone dressed like he’s at a Renaissance festival or wearing armor from the Middle Ages.  What the heck happened?  It’s actually pretty simple; the family who paid for the painting asked the artist to put them in the scene, painting them into the suffering and death of Jesus.  I guess that would be easy to see as self-promotion or advertizing.  Good thing we don’t have that anymore, or we’d find someone like Ray Vinson painted on the walls here!  In reality though, this has deep and rich symbolism.  Jesus really did suffer with us and for us.  He feels sorrow for us when we suffer, even from the depths of his soul.  We need to know that we never suffer alone, and we can always turn to him in our dark moments to find him right there, linking his cross to ours.  We can paint ourselves into Christ’s sufferings even now – not through artists or artisans, but through prayer and faith.  We can enter into Christ’s sufferings because he entered first into ours, so that we would never suffer alone.

So does God really care about us?  Yes.  God hears us and cares about us.  As the Gospel says, “God has visited his people” here in the Eucharist, the great mystery that we celebrated last weekend for Corpus Christi, and the great mystery that we will celebrate now.  May we open our hearts to his compassion and his grace working to bring us meaning and fulfillment in our lives.

The Holy Apostles: St. John

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 priviledges 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.

Coptic Icon of St. John on the island of Patmos
Coptic Icon of St. John on the island of Patmos

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 Colosseum 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!

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!

Homily From Corpus Christi

panisSo a funny thing happened the other day.  I was working on this homily, and for some unknown reason, I decided to check my e-mail.  I saw one from Zenit, which is the Vatican news agency, which had a homily written by Pope Francis.  So I’m reading through this homily, when I have the sudden realization that the diocese of Rome celebrates today’s feast, Corpus Christi, on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday – which was last Sunday.  So that means that the homily I was reading was actually for Corpus Christi!  So I did my happy dance and proceeded to copy it down and read it to you today.  Not really, but Pope Francis brought up three words that guided his homily, and those are the three that I will allow myself to be guided by today: discipleship, communion, and sharing.  There, now you have a checklist to follow so you know how soon I’ll be finished.

The first theme is discipleship.  And if we think about the miracle in our Gospel today, maybe we should ask first, who is it that he’s giving this miracle to?   He’s giving it to the multitude, to the thousands who had been following him.  These aren’t like Cardinal fans who packed everything in their cars and drove 4 hours to watch the Cards play the Royals in Kansas City.  These are disciples.  They have given their entire lives over to Jesus – all they had was what they had on them.  They were totally dependent on Christ, all because they wanted to listen to what he had to say.  Today, we are the crowds following Jesus.  We come here to hear his Word and to receive his nourishment at the altar.  And I think the question we can ask ourselves today is “How do I follow Christ?”  What have I given up to follow him.  Obviously part of that answer is your time, which is why you’re here!  But what about when that time isn’t as convenient?  Or what about when it’s not something that we really want to give up?  What is Christ still calling me to give of myself to follow him.  Ok, so now I really will steal from Pope Francis.  He said the other day that “Jesus speaks in silence in the mystery of the Eucharsit, and each time reminds us that following him means coming out of ourselves and making our life not our own, but a gift to him and to others.

The Eucharist has so many different names that we use to refer to it.  Obviously one of them is the “Eucharist”, meaning that action of thanksgiving to God.  But there’s also “The Lord’s Supper,” “the Breaking of the Bread,” “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” and in the eastern churches, it is called the “Holy and Divine Liturgy”.  Probably one of the most appropriate names for today is “Holy Communion.”  Think back to the miracle of the feeding of the multitude.  Whenever Jesus performs miracles, he’s doing it to solve a problem or fix something.  A person is possessed, so he exorcises them.  A person is blind, so he heals them.  In this case, the problem isn’t a personal thing, it’s a multitude – they are hungry!  What’s the disciples’ solution?  Dismiss them!  Everyone for himself!  Let them handle it on their own!  How often is that our solution as well, that we cast people aside to let them solve their own problems.  But what is Jesus’ solution?  He tells them to bring what they have, and uses it to provide for all – both their physical hunger and their inner longing for fulfillment.  All of them are satisfied.

That is communion.  Communion isn’t our coming together for one idea or purpose.  With all the storms Friday, there was a lot of damage, but there was also an outpouring of help!  People were helping others out so that things could get back on track, so that traffic could get moving, and so that things would be the way that they were before.  That’s great!  That’s real service!  That’s solidarity!  But it’s not necessarily communion.  Solidarity isn’t communion until you add love in the mix.  Communion isn’t the coming together of people around an idea, it’s coming together around a person, Jesus Christ, who is love.

One of the greatest things the Eucharist can teach us is generosity.  It teaches us to give freely.  Think about the miracle in the Gospel.  When all was said and done, the disciples didn’t send everyone a bill!  The Eucharist is a gift.  It is the gift of the disciples as they pooled what little they had, which was clearly insufficient.  But it is the gift of Christ as well, as he consecrated the bread and fish, as few as they were, to make them sufficient and satisfying to the crowd.  Even today, the Eucharist is our gift, as we present bread and wine and our prayers, but it is Christ’s gift above all, as he consecrates them to give us life, peace, and satisfaction.

The Eucharist is an invitation to give as well.  In our first reading, we have this story of Abraham and Melchizedek.  Tradition has interpreted Melchizedek as a prefigurement of Jesus, as he brings bread and wine.  What is Abraham’s response?  Prior to the reading, he had just conquered an army from Sodom, recovered all his stolen possessions, and rescued his cousin.  He had everything back to what was comfortable for him.  And what did he do?  He gave a tenth of it to this unknown priest!  Not because he liked Melchizedek or because he owed it to him, but out of gratitude and generosity of God.  For me, it’s tough to talk about tithing from the pulpit.  I feel like I’m just asking for money for ourselves so that we can pay our staff, keep the church pretty, and keep the lights on.  It doesn’t seem fair.  It’s dependent on pure generosity.  And in our contemporary culture, we see giving in a commercial way – I give something, and you give me something back.  But the reality is, tithing isn’t filling out your envelopes or dropping in the basket because we owe anything.  It really is about pure generosity, because that’s what communion is.  Pope Francis said, “In the Eucharist, the Lord makes us travel his path – that of service, of sharing, of gift, and what little we have, what little we are, if shared, becomes wealth, because the power of God, which is that of love, descends into our poverty to transform it.

Brothers and sisters, today, the Eucharist calls us to think about discipleship, communion, and generosity.  Let us pray for the grace to give to Christ more freely, to follow Christ more closely, and to live in Christ more deeply.

The Holy Apostles: St. James the Greater

Saint_James_the_JustAs 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 (which incidentally we just heard this past week at daily Mass!) 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 Zarazoga, 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?