Feast of St. James the Greater, Apostle

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

We are usually advised not to think too hard about something that is really incomprehensible.  The little boy on the seashore trying to fill a small hole with the ocean turned the tables on St. Augustine and told him it was no better for him to try to understand the Trinity.  But there are some unthinkable mysteries that just don’t go away.  They hang around, like ghosts looking through windows.  One that keeps haunting me is the death of small, innocent children, the death of persons who “die too soon.”  The unfulfilled and undeveloped lives of children still-born or aborted.  The unfulfilled lives of those show struggle simply for survival and who dream, not of going to Harvard or Yale, but of fending off malnutrition. 

Our understanding of a meaningful life is one which is developed through choices and living with the consequences of those choices.  It is our accomplishments and opportunities that constitute our identity and personality.  We build up a sense of importance and significance from what we have made of ourselves.  How can those robbed of all choice and opportunity really become persons?  They don’t seem to have a “place.”  Our place is that importance and significance have earned.  We work our way to the front seats, to positions of respect and honor, making our authority felt.  When we are struck down, we strike back.  When we are afflicted, we afflict in turn.  When we are persecuted, we go on the attack.  We hold on to our treasure.

But what happens when the “unthinkable mystery” intrudes itself into our lives?  When things “haven’t worked out?”  When the coherent life we have assembled collapses?  When we are told we are being “let go?”  When our security is unexpectedly snuffed out?  When what we have been working for dissolves before our eyes?  When the diagnosis is an inoperable disease?  It is all terribly unjust and unfair.  What is our place then? 

Maybe the spirits and ghosts of those who have been robbed of all the opportunities and choices of life can open our eyes to a hidden and dark dimension of life.  All the personality development and accomplishments of life pale before the transformation wrought in yielding to the work of God in the midst of the violence of evil.  Those most unjustly victimized by the powers of destruction and death are those most transparent and receptive to the reworking of God’s justice.  They are able to consent to the action of God in the midst of the darkness of their lives,. Teilhard de Chardin writes that we must overcome death by finding God in it. Abandonment and surrender to God’s apparent abandonment of us becomes the earthen vessel that contains the surpassing power of God.  It is the dying of Jesus that we carry in our bodies.  It is a fulfillment that is God’s work and which places us with you in His presence.  Then, everything is indeed for you. 

You do not know what you are asking.  We only know that God is acting, not what he is doing. The unthinkable mystery upends our expectations, but only to ground our desire in unshakable hope.  We are offered a share in the chalice from which Christ drinks.  It does not offer clarity of vision or security of position.  It is a participation in a life and community which far exceeds the controllable and knowable limits of our accomplishments and fulfillments.  It is to know and live from the ransom offered through the dying of the Just One at the hands of violent evil.  We can be constantly given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies.


Feast of St. James the Greater, Apostle

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

When someone comes to the monastery to see Br. Paul or Fr. David, the Guest Master replies, “We have two Br. Pauls, we have two Fr. Davids. Which one do you want to see?” In the first Christian community there were six disciples named James: James the Greater, son of Zebedee, (Mt. 10:2); James the younger, son of Alphaeus, (Mt. 10:3); James, the cousin of Jesus, (Mt. 27:56); James, the brother of Jude; James, father of the apostle Thaddeus, (Lk 6:16); and James, who wrote the Epistle. In today’s feast we honor the first, James the Greater, son of Zebedee.

Perhaps he was the greater because of his age or his physical size, accustomed to hauling in large nets of fish and to rowing a heavy boat when the waters of the Sea of Galilee turned rough. Like other fishermen, James had big hands and arms made strong by years of hard work; and piercing eyes pressed into a menacing squint by the blowing winds and the sun’s reflection on the sea. He was a fisherman whose loud, resonant voice could rise above crashing waves in a violent storm, a man whose full black beard and formidable presence commanded respect. This prominent apostle caught the murderous eye of Herod Agrippa when he decided to attack Jesus’ disciples by killing the leaders. He began by beheading James the Greater. And so a son of Zebedee received an unexpected honor. He was the first of the twelve apostles to shed his blood for Christ.

But Jesus had a different way of distinguishing James the Greater and his brother John from other disciples. He called them, “Sons of Thunder.” Was it because of their father’s reaction when his two sons left him with unmended fishing nets and took off to follow Jesus?

Or, did they earn the title “Sons of Thunder” when they wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans who rejected Jesus? James and John were capable of violence. But Jesus wouldn’t let them impose faith on others by force, or strike down those who refused to listen. Yet, the apostles were slow learners when it came to non-violence. If they couldn’t impose their will on others by force, they still felt free to use violence when a mob came with clubs and swords against Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter lashed out with his sword. But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword,“(Mt. 26:52). Deprived of the means to defend themselves, they all fled.

They acted like Charlie Brown fleeing from the wrath of Lucy who was threatening him with her raised fist, “I’ll get you, Charlie Brown, I’ll knock your block off.” But then, suddenly, he stopped running and wheeled around to face her. “Wait a minute.” he said, “Hold everything. We can’t carry on like this. We have no right to act this way. The world is filled with people hurting each other, people not understanding one another. Now, if we as children can’t solve our minor problems, how can we expect …..” At this point Lucy interrupted Charlie Brown’s preaching with a stiff punch that knocked him to the ground. She reflected, “I had to hit him quick. He was beginning to make sense.” That little scene captures the teaching of Jesus: to speak the truth and suffer for it, to stand in harm’s way without ever doing harm, to win hearts not by force of violence or striking back, but by love, even to give up one’s life by martyrdom.

Jesus taught this when James and John came with their mother to ask for the highest places in his kingdom. Did she initiate this request out of a mother’s loving ambition to have the best for her sons? Or, did they ask her to intercede for them, because she was one of the women who followed Jesus and helped pay his way—putting Jesus in debt to her? Either way, Jesus did not promise them thrones at his right and left. Instead, he asked if they could share his chalice, the cup of suffering.

It must have been a proud moment for this good mother when her two sons replied with confidence, “We can.” But at the threat of suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, all the disciples were struck with fear and fled. Perhaps James and John are fittingly called “Sons of Thunder,” not because of their father’s temper or their own preference for violence, but because of the reaction of Mrs. Zebedee when she found out her boys had abandoned Jesus. Can you hear her shouting, “Just wait ’till I get my hands on those boys!” She did get hold of John, and he was there with this brave woman when she stood at the foot of the cross where Jesus suffered and died.

It’s hard to follow the high calling of Jesus to suffer violence and death without doing harm to another. A great commentator on the New Testament, William Barclay, writes that one Roman coin had a picture of an ox facing both an altar and a plough. The inscription said, “Ready for either.” The ox was ready to be slain on the altar of sacrifice or to labor for many years on the farm. So it happened that James was quickly martyred, while his brother, John, labored for Christ until he was nearly a hundred years old, dying of old age. As Christians we may be called to follow Jesus by an early, premature death, suffering martyrdom, or by the labor of a long life, struggling to be faithful without growing cold in our love. May we be ready for either.