Saint James of Jerusalem
Today, in the calendar of the Church we remember Saint James of Jerusalem, also known as James the Just and James the brother of our Lord. According to our lections this evening, all these titles seem appropriate, but it is this third title as ‘brother’ that I find intriguing and a starting point to exploring the others. I suspect all of us here understand the complexity of family dynamics. If your experience is like mine, you’ll know that when relationships with family members are good, they can be amazing, affirming, and a source of belonging. But, when they’re not, they can be the source of much pain, sadness, anger, and frustration, which if left unchecked can lead to estrangement.
Tradition has speculated that James might have been Jesus’ half-brother from a previous marriage of Joseph. Perhaps James was Jesus’ cousin; in first-century Palestine, the term brother was sometimes used as a way of describing other family members generally associated with someone. Regardless, our gospel lesson from Matthew says that as Jesus was preaching in the synagogue, people were astounded and even offended because Jesus isn’t from a rabbinic pedigree, which was commonly one of education and privilege. “Where did this man get this wisdom and deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where did this man get all this?” People seem to know that Jesus (in unflattering terms) was a bastard. While Mary was named as his mother, Joseph’s name was not even mentioned, much less the name of Jesus’ actual father in heaven. Jesus was simply the ‘carpenter’s son.’
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.
Feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, Brother of Our Lord, and Martyr, c 62
Acts 15: 12 – 22a
1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11
Matthew 13: 54 – 58
If you have ever been to Jerusalem, you have perhaps found two of my favourite places. The first is quite easy to find, the Armenian Cathedral of St. James’, just near Jaffa Gate. The problem with the Cathedral is that it is only open when there are services on, and the best time to go is late afternoon for Vespers. It is sung by the cathedral clergy and students who attend the seminary across from the Cathedral. Once Vespers is over you have about 15 minutes to look around before being ushered out. I love the Cathedral, for obvious reasons. Who couldn’t love a cathedral dedicated not to one St. James but two!
The first St. James, the more familiar, is St. James the Apostle, brother of St. John and son of Zebedee. It is he, whose shrine at Compostela in Spain is at the end of the Camino, the pilgrim way that has become so popular in recent years. This St. James was beheaded by order of Herod Antipas and in a side chapel of the Cathedral, near the door, is his shrine. Spain has his body, but the Armenians in Jerusalem have his head.