“Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink?”
Our Lord seems to have been a bit impatient—having received a rather presumptuous request from Salome, the mother of James and John, to grant her sons the positions of honor in the kingdom of heaven, He asked this rather biting question, and apparently directed it to the two Apostles themselves. Whether or not they understood that our Lord meant the Chalice of martyrdom, they were quick to respond, “We can.”
In point of fact, James the brother of John, would be remembered forever as the first martyr of the Apostles, and would be put to death by one of the Herod kings in 44 AD, only eleven years after the death of our Lord. Trying to curry favor with the Jews, who were beside themselves about the rapid spread of Christianity, King Herod Agrippa “killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. [i] Thus our Lord’s words were fulfilled, “My chalice indeed you shall drink.
James would be remembered as Saint James “the great,” but that seems to have been because the other Apostle James was either younger or shorter in stature. The “other” James, Saint James “the less,” the son of Alpheus, was a relative of our Lord, the author of one of the Epistles, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and also a martyr—he is said to have been beaten with a fuller’s club, and thrown head long from the terrace of the Temple.
Today’s Saint James, “the great,” is renowned for having brought the Catholic Faith to Spain. The town of Compostella, in the north east, claims to have his relics—legend holds that his remains were miraculously transferred to Spain after his death in Jerusalem. We know, with fair certainty, that, after James’ death, the needs of the Church in Spain were seen to by Saints Peter and Paul, with Peter consecrating a number of bishops (known as “the seven apostolic men”) who founded sees along the southern coast.
Christian Spain had its share of difficulties, first with Gnosticism, then with the Arian heresy, but most of all with the invasion of the Moslems who poured across the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa and occupied the country for about seven hundred years, that ended only in 1492. It was during the Moslem occupation that Saint James came to be invoked as the Spanish patron Saint—particularly as the patron of defense against the Moslems. Spanish tradition has it that Saint James “appeared on a white cloud at the battle of Clavijo in 844 and spurred Spanish soldiers on to victory against the Moors.” Since that time, Saint James has been portrayed in Spanish art as “Saint James the Moor-slayer,” mounted on a white horse, cutting off the heads of the Moslems with his sword.
There was recently a good deal of controversy over such a statue that has been venerated at Compostella since the 1800s. When the Church tried to remove it, so as not to offend the growing Moslem population, the reaction of everyday Catholics was near to being riotous. The statue will stay in place, and sometime today King Juan Carlos will make his annual pilgrimage to venerate the statue. [ii] Other European countries were briefly invaded by Islam during the middle ages, but Spain’s particularly long period of captivity make it more difficult for the average Spaniard to accept politically correct ideas about Islam as “a religion of peace.” Hopefully, their enthusiasm is based on the knowledge that the Catholic Faith they received from Saint James is the authentic truth, revealed by God to the Apostles.
And that brings us to one other important aspect of Saint James’ life—his close association with our Lord Jesus Christ. In many of the Gospels we read that our Lord did some particular thing in the company of Peter, James, and John. The James in question is the one we honor today, and John is his brother. Perhaps our Lord was amused with their rather impetuous personalities, for He referred to them as “the sons of thunder.” The nickname came about when certain Samaritans refused to give a hearing to Jesus, and the two brothers suggested that He call down fire from heaven to consume the entire town! Our Lord’s response is worth noting: “The Son of man came not to destroy souls, but to save.” [iii]
But no matter how impetuous, Peter, James, and John were privileged to accompany our Lord to Mount Thabor to witness His transfiguration, and to share the last few hours of His life in the Garden of Gethsemane before being arrested by the Jews and taken away to be crucified. They were present at one of our Lord’s early miracles, when He healed Peter’s mother-in-law; and they were the only ones allowed to witness the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue at Capharnaum. [iv]
The other saint, commemorated today with Saint James, is Saint Christopher—probably best known as the patron saint of travelers. Even more than Saint James, the life of Saint Christopher is shrouded in legend. It is said that he was a Canaanite, a member of one of the original tribes of the Holy Land, who lived in the second or third century. He was a powerful man of enormous physical size—and he took it upon himself to find the powerful master in the world, and enter into his service. He was attached to one king for a while, but noted that this king often made a certain gesture, which the king explained to be his reaction to fear of the devil. So Christopher left the king in search of the devil—for Christopher reasoned that the devil had to be the more powerful of the two if he could inspire fear in the king. Christopher soon found the devil, but discovered, in turn, that the devil was afraid of the Cross and of Christ. Finding Christ proved to be a bit more elusive, but one day a young Child asked Christopher to carry Him across a dangerous river. The Child, of course, turned out to be Christ, and Christopher came to realize that the most powerful master in the world was also the most humble. He became a Christian, and ultimately a martyr, doing his best to imitate the humility of his most powerful master.
Both of today’s saints, then, are presented to us as men of action; both of them came to know Christ in a personal way; both of them gave up their own pretensions in favor of a Christ-like humility; both of them gave their lives in the service of Jesus Christ.
We are not called upon to burn the cities of the Samaritans just because they refuse to hear the words of Christ. But we are called to know Christ: to learn about His life from the Sacred Scriptures; and, so to speak, to carry Him about with us so that we may come to know Him in prayer and meditation. We are called to defend His truth and His Church—perhaps even by force of arms, whenever the Samaritans go from ignoring Christ to persecuting Him in His people. And certainly, like James and Christopher and so many Saints like them, we are called to change our pride into humility—for very often the conversion of souls is inspired more by example than by violence—we are always called to bear in mind that the Son of man came not to destroy souls, but to save them.
[i] Acts xii:1-2
[ii] “Public outcry forces church to keep Moor Slayer's statue" by Isambard Wilkinson in Madrid (Filed: 22/07/2004) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/07/22/wstat22.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/07/22/ixworld.html
[iii] Luke ix: 54, 56
[iv] Mark i: 29-31; and v: 21-43