Sermon: St. James the Apostle

Saint James the Greater by Guido Reni

In a conversation with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien said, “We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.” I like that, probably because it confirms what I already believe: the myths and legends of the Saints don’t have to be one hundred percent true in order to speak one hundred percent truth. That said, our legend today is about St. James the Great, the brother of John.

In the reading from The Acts of the Apostles, we read that King Herod “had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.” Anything else about James comes to us through legend and tradition.

Before his death, the tradition holds that James went to Spain on a missionary journey and returned to Israel. Upon hearing of his death, some of the disciples from Spain came to retrieve his body for a proper burial in Spain. However, they had no means to get him there. It was then that a barge—made of marble!—appeared on the shores of the Mediterranean, and they boarded it along with their horses and supplies, and then, on its own, the boat began a journey across the sea. At some point, one of the horses got spooked and jumped with its rider into the sea. When they could rescue the horse and rider, they found shells attached to the horse’s bridle. They would then travel further, eventually landing on the coast of Spain. Later, in the 9th century, a monk, through the guidance of a dream, discovered the location of the bones of St. James and placed them in a chapel that would later be built into a cathedral in Santiago, Spain, which became the destination of a great pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. The shell attached to the horse’s bridle (one like this) has become the sign of St. James and the symbol of a pilgrim along the Camino, also known as The Way. To that, I say, “2024”, because that is when I hope to walk it.

Tolkien said our myths “reflect a splintered fragment of the true light.” If that is true, what fragment of the true light would this myth point us to?

We could find many, but what can we learn if we limit it to our Gospel reading?

The mother of James and John had come asking (and it sounds like she was asking on behalf of the two boys) that her sons have places of honor at Jesus’ left and right. Jesus said that wasn’t for him to decide, and the other ten disciples got angry—probably because they didn’t think to ask first! Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

In the context of the Gospel, the legend tells us that James must have taken these words to heart because he did become great through his service to the Gospel and God’s people, as demonstrated by the fact that each year, some 350,000 pilgrims make their way to the cathedral in Santiago, Spain so that they can pray before the bones of the Apostle. As for pilgrimages, Santiago is third, with only Israel and Rome ahead.

I don’t believe that any of us will reach the status of having 350,000 pilgrims come to pray before our bones, but I do believe that if there are only a few that say we made a difference in their lives, then we have accomplished much, for as Jesus says, “Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42)

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