Feast of St. James the Apostle

[Scripture Readings: 2 Cor 4:7-15; Mt 20:20-28]

James and his brother John were dubbed by Jesus as the “Sons of Thunder.” They were enthusiastic about what they believed in. When they sought worldly honors, Jesus confronted them. The time was coming for Jesus and them to take a stand. James' stand led him to martyrdom. John endured exile and scorn. Both eventually drank of the chalice that Christ drank from.

When one drinks of the chalice, one empties it. It can then be filled anew. This is a symbol of the selflessness of Jesus Christ that we are called to imitate. Since self cannot conquer self, taking a stand means we will let the Father make us whatever we will be. It is the task of His Holy Spirit to create an opening in us for this attitude of selflessness. We drink of the chalice Christ drank from when we go through a kind of crucifixion of our old ideas about our relationship to God or about what we think it will take to make us happy.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade describes two states of relationship to God. St. Benedict had masterfully incorporated both of them into his Rule. The first is called “Living in God.” James and John lived this by being devout, observant Jews. This is the ascetic life of prayer, renunciation, and good works that Benedict outlines in most of his “little Rule for beginners.” We turn our lives over to God and He leads us by spiritual directors and the structures of a way of life.

The second state de Caussade describes is that of “God living in us.” This is what Jesus is calling His disciples to in calling them to drink of His chalice. It is the state of abandonment of self to God, relying only on what He sends us from moment-to-moment. This is the crucifixion to old ideas that just doing the right thing, being a good person, would be sufficient for a relationship with God. Benedict describes and prescribes this most specifically in the heart of his Rule, Ch. 7 on humility.

De Caussade describes the experience of drinking of the chalice that Christ drinks of; he describes the experience of abandonment, of taking a stand; he writes: “In the state of abandonment the only rule is the duty of the present moment… The abandoned soul is like a sculptor's stone. With each blow of the hammer the stone only feels that it is being diminished, cut, and altered by the chisel. And a stone, not knowing what it will become if it were asked, 'What is happening to you?' would reply, 'Do not ask me, I only know one thing, and that is, to remain immovable in the hands of my master, to love him, and to endure all that he inflicts upon me. As for the end for which I am destined, it is His business to understand how it is to be accomplished.1

In short, Fr. De Caussade is telling us that, on our part, holiness is not achieved, it is allowed. The novice, entering at the first state, must come to see and admire this in the seniors if he is to persevere. Otherwise, resentment will drive him away.

When the chalice is drained, it can be filled. God loves empty spaces. Consider all the references to fullness in scripture and liturgy: “God comes in the fullness of time…”; “I have come to fulfill the law & the prophets.” Mary, who is full of grace, tells us “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Benedict also points to this fullness at the end of Ch. 7 saying we will quickly arrive at perfect love of God in which renunciations become effortless, natural and motivated by love. At the end of his Rule he tells us we will prefer nothing whatever to Christ who will fill us with everlasting life.

In this gospel, Jesus is telling James and us that the ability to be poor and empty is a human's greatest wealth. He says He will reveal this through the events of His own life. He is showing us that God's life is one of selfless giving and we have been created to participate in His life. First, we must take a stand.

After all, we have nothing better to do.

Feast of St. James the Apostle

[Scripture Readings: 2Cor. 4: 7-15; Mt. 20: 20-28]

It seems to me that the celebration of every saint’s feast day or memorial is an invitation to reflect on our own call to be Jesus’ disciples. True, I am not called to be an apostle or a missionary or the specific details of most of the saints’ vocations; but a too literal understanding of the example that the saints present to us can cause us to overlook the fact that every situation is an opportunity to respond to God’s call.

We can too easily think that if I had this or that talent, or if my situation were different in this or that way then I could perform a significant service for God. That attitude misses the point that the foundation of every vocation is the imitation of Christ, and as this morning’s gospel reminds us, Jesus came to serve. Every situation provides us with the opportunity to be a servant. Our attention can too easily be diverted to the prestige and recognition that we would like to receive from being a disciple and away from attending to the service to which we are called. Jesus promised happiness and fulfillment to those who accepted his call, along with suffering, but the form these rewards will take is hidden in God’s designs; and God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s values are not our values. A consistent message I read in the gospels is that more often than not God turns our value system upside down: Those who want to be great should become servants; the first will be last and the last will be first; and so on.

Basic to every vocation is a simple willingness to serve in whatever way the Holy Spirit leads us, in whatever situation we are in. Knowledge of our weaknesses and limitations is good, but our weaknesses and limitations accepted in humility are not an obstacle to the Holy Spirit working through us. Our ambition and jealousy can be; but even here God accepts us as we are and he knows better than we our need for conversion. James and John had a mistaken notion of what it meant to serve in the kingdom of God, but so did the other ten. Jesus did not give up on them; he taught them and called them to humility. God does not give up on us either. The danger is that we will give up on ourselves.

What all the saints had in common was a willingness to respond to God’s call in their particular situations. Some seem to have had that attitude from the beginning; others came to it after a long conversion. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between. Whatever our temperament and whatever our situation we can take heart from the example of the saints. It is up to us answer yes to the Holy Spirit’s call to service.