Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer, I have been preaching on the lessons and the legends of Jesus’ 12 disciples and those who were sent by the early church to proclaim the good news. Oddly, as important as the disciples were, there are few churchgoers today who know their names. Thus far, we have heard the story of Andrew, Jesus’ first disciple, as well as his more well-known brother, Simon-Peter. We have meditated on two of the most overlooked apostles, Philip and James the Less, and arguably, the most misunderstood, Thomas the Twin. We heard the story of an apostle known simply by his last name Bartholomew. And last week, we turned to another set of brothers and fishermen, James and John. The younger brother, St. John, was longest living apostle and died of natural causes in old age, while his older brother, St. James the Elder, was the first of Jesus’ chosen 12 to become a martyr.
When I was in elementary school, it was customary for children to celebrate Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America on October 12th and to recite the following verse. In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The familiar rhyme was intended to help solidify a red-letter date in history. As a class we would then listen to the teacher read Jean Marzollo’s book “In 1492.”
In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.
He sailed by night; he sailed by day; He used the stars to find his way.
A compass also helped him know How to find the way to go.
Ninety sailors were on board; Some men worked while other snored.
Then the workers went to sleep; And other watched the ocean deep.
Day after day they looked for land; They dreamed of trees and rocks and sand.
October 12 their dream came true, You never saw a happier crew!
Of course, it was an idealized view of exploration and colonization. Certainly, Columbus didn’t discover America. The Norwegians already knew that. The New World had been there long before the Vikings and Spanish arrived. Still, Marzollo’s book is read today, with its more humorous verses emphasized, like:
But “India” the land was not; It was the Bahamas, and it was hot.
The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.
Now, it may surprise you, but there is actually a connection between St. James the Elder and Christopher Columbus which is worth exploring, and it has to do with the legendary date of his landing in the New World on October 12th.
James, or Jaakov in Aramaic was born in Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee in 5 BC to Zebedee and Salome. He was one of three disciples who was closest to Jesus. Peter, James and his younger brother John were together with Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus nicknamed them the Sons of Thunder, for their ardent and impulsive zeal. We see them first on the Sea mending their nets, when Jesus said to them, “Follow me and will make you fishers of men.” And immediately, they left their nets, their boats and the father and followed. The brothers were not complete strangers to Jesus. In scripture, it is recorded that Mary’s sister was Salome, the mother of James and John, which would mean that the brothers were Jesus’ first cousins.
Regardless of a possible family connection, James and John were spiritually close to Jesus as well, so Jesus took them along at certain key moments in his ministry. They were there when he was transfigured in dazzling white apparel on the top of the mountain and revealed to be God’s Son. And on the night of his arrest, they were there along with Peter, close to Jesus in the garden as he prayed. It was no wonder that the two brothers felt they were entitled to a place of honor and greater privilege.
Surprisingly, Jesus never criticized them for pursuing greatness; nor did he condemn them for their quest to be a heroes. Indeed, it is my belief that God has created us to do great things. But it is also true, that you may need may be rebuked and challenged by Jesus to redirect your focus. The story of James the Elder, reminds us that if you would like to be great, and a hero in the eyes of the world, you must be prepared to be last. Greatness for a Christian is not about being served first, but it is about serving others.
According to tradition, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, James the Elder was assigned the Roman territory of Hispania as his mission field, while his younger brother John took responsibility for Jesus’ mother Mary in Jerusalem. James fearlessly, and thunderously, traversed, the territory preaching the faith in Jesus Christ. Along the way, he gathered seven disciples, and although he worked tirelessly, his early efforts in Hispania bore little fruit.
Legend states that the Virgin Mary became aware of James’ distress, and to console him, she miraculously appeared to him while he was praying along the banks of the Ebro River in the ancient settlement of Caesaraugusta later known as Zaragoza. When James looked up from his prayers, Mary stood before him upon a jasper pillar supported by angels, and she encouraged him by revealing that the people of the province would one day possess a great faith as strong as a pillar because of his sacrifices. She then gave him a statue of herself, 15 inches high, holding the Christ child, and asked him to build a chapel there in their honor. This vision took place on January 2nd, 40 AD. Over the centuries the commemoration of that event was transferred to October 12th, and came to be known as the Feast of Our Lady of the Pillar. The chapel that James built was the first church in Spain. As for the original wooden statue of Our Lady of the Pillar that was given to James, is now decorated with gold and the crowns atop their heads are adorned with diamonds, pearls, emeralds, and other precious stones and adorns an altar in a side chapel.
James was heartened and encouraged by the vision of Mary and began anew his work of establishing the church in Hispania. Four years later, James returned to Jerusalem to tell of his mission. In the decade following Jesus’ resurrection, the Church had begun to expand to other regions beyond Jerusalem and Samaria, but there was tension between the Jewish and Gentile followers of the Way. Perhaps because of James’ evident zeal, or to appease the Jewish leaders, he was singled out by Herod Agrippa to be the first martyr among the twelve apostles, thus drinking the cup of Christ’s suffering and being baptized with the baptism of Christ’s death.
On the way to the place of his beheading, James converted his jailer, who then joined him in martyrdom. At last he understood Jesus’s words. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The site of James’ martyrdom is located within the Armenian Cathedral of St. James in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. His head is believed to be buried under the altar, marked by a piece of red marble and surrounded by six votive lamps.
After his martyrdom, popular belief relates that his followers carried his body to the coast and where it was set out to sea guided by angels and carried by the wind beyond the Strait of Gibraltar to the land near in northern Spain. The local Queen in Galicia provided the team of oxen used to draw the body from to the site of a marble tomb which she had also provided. Holy James or Jacob or as he was known in the Galician dialect Sant Iiago, was believed to have been buried there with two of his disciples. And there the body lay, forgotten until the 9th century until when the saint’s remains were discovered by a hermit. A church was then built over his burial place, or compostela which would become the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostela which is visited by thousands of pilgrims today.
The name Santiago grew more prominent in both lesson and legend. In times of war, there were often reports of a mysterious soldier who would come out of the mountains, riding a white horse and carrying a banner, miraculously leading the army to victory. The Spanish believed this rider was St. James, and their battle cry soon became “Santiago!” By 1492, the Spanish Crown, under that battle cry, had conquered the entire territory of Spain and driven the Moors from the land. This victory led King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to offer their patronage to the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus to search for new territories.
By early October of that same year, the 90 sailors aboard the Nina, the Pinta and Santa Maria, were growing disheartened, as was their captain. They had been to sea far too long, and just as James the Elder had once experienced desperation at the River Ebro, Columbus too prayed fervently for a sign. Miraculously, on the Feast of our Lady of the Pillar, October 12th, 1492, the ships sighted land. In time this date would be remembered in both Spain and the Americas.
So what does the story of St. James the Elder teach us about true greatness? First of all, the story reminds us that following Jesus faithfully is more than action. With boundless energy and thunderous enthusiasm, James journeyed off to Hispania where he passionately demonstrated his and loyalty to Christ. But when he began to falter and doubt, which happens to all Jesus’ disciples, he discovered that he needed to be renewed. He did this through prayer, for having been with Jesus, he knew the power of prayer. Indeed, it is a gift from God for renewing and deepening our commitment and faith so that we will have the strength to persevere.
Second, the story of James and the vision of Our Lady of the Pillar reminds us that God provides us with signs and words of encouragement along the way. As followers of Jesus, we may not be certain what we are supposed to do or even where we are going, but God through these signs is saying, “You are important and your work is too.” Be patient, your task will be clear one day and then those works will be great. So, do the little steps now.
Finally, James teaches us that we may not see the true fruits of our labors. Certainly James didn’t see the church in Spain flourish, nor a faith that would cross the ocean to the New World. We all live with that reality. We may wonder whether even our own next generation will have faith, but we know what our duty should be. As the saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” You may not see the fruit, but the planting of tomorrow’s faith and the nourishing of God’s faithful, begins with you today. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.