James and his brother John were Galilean fishermen, called by Jesus to become disciples. They were the sons of Zebediah or Zebedee. In tradition, their mother was called Salome (not the same one who danced before Herod) – it was she who, in one gospel account, asked Jesus if her sons could sit on either side of God in glory. James is known as ‘the great’ not because he is more important than the other disciple called James, but because he was either older or taller than James the less. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus gives these two brothers the name ‘boanerges’, meaning ‘Sons of Thunder’ – so, these brothers had loud voices. We begin to get a picture of James and John as burly, noisy men – maybe a bit uncouth. Certainly not ‘holy’ in the conventional sense of the word.
James, along with his brother, was chosen by Jesus as a witness to the Transfiguration, which is why so many of the prayers and liturgies associate him with seeing the image of Christ. We can assume from this that these unlikely men had qualities other than being big and noisy – there must have been something that made Jesus single them out as witnesses for this event – a revelation of Jesus’ glory.
James was the first of the twelve to die for his faith: we are told in the Acts of the Apostles that he was executed by Herod Agrippa – one of a dynasty of Herods with blood on their hands. He died in 44 A.D. – around 14 years after Jesus’ death. Traditions of the early church tell of James’ journey, in those intervening years, to the Iberian peninsula in Spain to preach the Gospel there. His remains are thought to rest at Santiago de Compostela – the name means ‘the place where St James is buried’.
The story of James’ journey to and back from Spain makes him the patron saint of pilgrims. The Camino – a pilgrimage route dating from the ninth century, begins in France, crosses the pyrenees and ends in Santiago. At the journey’s end, pilgrims are given a scallop shell as a badge of their pilgrimage – scallop shells were common on the beaches of Galicia. The shells became the symbol of pilgrimages and we still use a scallop shell today, in baptism – a symbol of our pilgrimage, as Christians, from our earthly to our heavenly home. The pilgrimage to santiago is more popular now than ever – around 300,000 people make the journey every year. This year is a special one as James’ feast day falls on a Sunday: known as Camino Holy Year, pilgrims are said to be even more blessed by their journey – so this year will be an esepcially busy one on the pilgrim route.
It’s worth looking out for the 2010 film ‘The Way’ – a fictional account of a group of pilgrims on the Camino – it’s a lovely film. There was also a BBC documentary about a group of modern day pilgrims walking the Camino – not available at the moment.
And it all began with two brothers, called by Jesus to follow him, on the shore of Lake Galilee. James shows us that we can all be followers of Jesus – no matter how rough and ready, no matter how unsaintly we seem to be. As the patron saint of Pilgrims, he gives us the gift of reflecting on our journey through life as followers of Jesus. And he has inspired a huge movement of pilgrimages – not just the Camino – journeys of faith to holy places which have become known as journeys of healing, self discovery and hope.