St. James the Greater is also the patron saint of the Santiago de Compostela (the way of St. James). After Jesus' ascension, St. James made his way to Spain where he preached and spread the Gospel. He returned to Jerusalem, however, and was beheaded there under orders from Herod. Tradition holds that his body was returned to northwest Spain, and a cult to him began. He is especially associated with the scallop shells found naturally in the area. Scallop shells are also seen throughout the compostela as markers and momentos. But why are scalloped shells so closely connected to St. James?
Philip Kosloski of Aleteia.com, writes, "Part of it was due to certain legends surrounding the arrival of St. James’s body in Spain. One story recounts that after James was martyred in Jerusalem in the year 44, his body was taken to Spain and when the ship reached the shore a horse was spooked and fell in the water. The story goes on to say how both the horse and rider were miraculously saved and came forth from the water covered in scallop shells.
On a more practical level scallop shells are naturally found on the coast of Galicia near the location of St. James’s tomb. For pilgrims in the Middle Ages the journey was typically done to fulfill a penance given by a priest. In order to verify that the pilgrim did in fact reach the final destination, a local souvenir was required. Over time pilgrims began to take the scallop shells they found and then presented them as proof when they returned home."
Scallop shells are also closely associated with the Sacrament of Baptism, and thus, also to new life through membership in the family of God. This symbolism would have been part of the reason for the pilgrimage as well - a restoration to the relationship with God. Through the use of water in Baptism, we die to the old life of death and sin and rise to new life. This once again reminds us of Jesus' conversation with St. James - "Can you drink the chalice I am going to drink?" Can you participate in my death and resurrection, and so find new life for yourself?
Scripture shows that St. James was "hot headed" and Jesus called James and his brother "Sons of Thunder." The pilgrimage tradtion reminds us of the path we are all on, the path that St . James showed us of a turning away from our rasher impulses into a mellowing out into fullness of life.
On Thursday, July 25, we celebrate the Feast of St James, Apostle, one of the original 12 apostles. St. James is often referred to as "James the Greater" to distinguish him from "James the Lesser", another apostle. In this case, "greater" and "lesser simply refer to age, not merit or status.
James the Greater is one of the two brothers who approached Jesus and asked him to guarantee them each a spot of honor in Jesus' kingdom, "one on the left and one on the right." (Mt. 20:22) In response to this request, Jesus says "Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?" Both brothers offer an assured "Yes, we can" to the question. Jesus goes on to say that these places are not his to distribute, but that they are reserved for "those whom it has been prepared by my Father."
The lack of hesitation in the brothers' answer is interesting. Did the question take them by surprise? Did they have time to properly think about what Jesus was asking? James and John certainly believed in Jesus and his kingdom, that much is evident. They were so confident of it, in fact, that they thought they had better take steps to secure places of honor in the kingdom, when it came. But they didn't seem to understand that greatness in the Kingdom of God is predicated by smallness in this one.
This misunderstanding is not unusual, after all, what Jesus taught goes against our basic instinct to survive and thrive, and even seems to contradict common sense. How can one be great by being the least?
"Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?" - that question is put to us all. Can any of us really say "Yes?" If we knew that we would be mocked, rejected by our leaders, abandoned by our friends, humiliated, scourged within an inch of our lives, made to drag a huge cross through town and up a hill, where we are stripped naked, nailed in the hands and feet, and hung up for public display, to die inch by inch - would we really say "Yes! Count me in!"
Yet it is this same question that is put to us all. It is a deep and serious question, one that should be pondered and thought about. No wonder Jesus tells James and John "the places are reserved by my Father" - only the Father knows who will drink the same depth from that chalice.
When we are younger and feel invincible, we are more likely to say "Yes! I can take it! All for Christ!" Age and the experience of suffering makes you pause and wonder "Can I? Can I really drink from this cup?" But the answer is really non-negotiable. Entrance into the KIngdom of God is through one gate only - dying and rising in Jesus Christ. We are, each one of us, offered Christ's chalice, eventually. In this month devoted to the Precious Blood, we should ask ourselves "How deeply am I willing to drink?"
James the Greater would eventually keep his word and drink from the cup of Christ. He was martyred in 44ad, the first apostle to be martyred, in fact. Pray for us, St. James! Give us your courage and your conviction. Amen.