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!