St James of Jerusalem, Witness to the Gospel – Br. David Vryhof
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Hegesippus, a church historian from the second century, writes this about the early Church and about St James of Jerusalem, whom we remember today:
Control of the Church passed to the apostles, together with the Lord’s brother James, whom everyone from the Lord’s time till our own has called the Righteous, for there were many Jameses, but this one was holy from his birth: he drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head; he did not smear himself with oil, and took no baths. He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place, for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel’s from his continually bending them in worship of God and beseeching forgiveness for the people.[i]
So this James, a brother of the Lord, was a holy man, an ascetic who was known for his deep life of prayer and for his continuous intercessions on behalf of God’s people. Oddly, the Gospels have nothing to say of him and he does not seem to have traveled with Jesus during his earthly ministry. The first thing we are told of him is that he was a witness to the Resurrection, one to whom Jesus appeared individually. And we know that he was a leader in the early Church, chosen to be the first Bishop of Jerusalem.
Apart from his holiness of life, he is known as a just man and a reconciler of differences in the early Church. Paul’s mission work outside of Israel had caused an influx of Gentile believers, and the early followers of Jesus who remained faithful to their Jewish roots did not know how to incorporate these Gentiles into their communities of faith. Of special concern was the question of whether Gentile men needed to be circumcised (as all Jewish men were) in order to join the Church. James listened to both sides, hearing testimony from both Peter and Paul, and found a way through the conflict. Circumcision was not to be required, and Gentile believers were only expected to refrain “from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood,” all of which were considered acceptable restraints for those dedicating their lives to God.
James was instrumental in causing many to come to Christ, and was soon recognized as a dangerous threat by the Scribes and Pharisees. They insisted that he stand on the Sanctuary parapet and urge the people not to follow Jesus, but to remain faithful to their Jewish faith. James rose up, but ignoring the directives of the Jewish religious leaders, he proclaimed the message of Christ. Embarrassed and angered his defiance, the religious leaders sought to make an example of him by throwing him off the Temple heights. He was still alive after the fall, but was beaten to death by the crowd. Hegessipus concludes his account with this testimony: “He has proved himself a true witnessto Jews and Gentiles alike that Jesus is the Christ.”
Inspired by his holiness of life, his wise leadership of the Church, and the courage with which he faced a martyr’s death, we reflect today on our own role as witnesses of the Gospel of Christ in our own age, and pray that we may be found as faithful as he was. Oh, that it would be said of each of us: “He has proved himself a true witness to (all people) that Jesus is the Christ.”
[i] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2, 23: PG 20, 195-204. Quoted in Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church; edited by J. Robert Wright; (NY:The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1991); p. 493-4.
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