I have a fascination with Saint James, the brother of Jesus.  He simply did not believe in Jesus or his mission at its outset.  In Mark 6, the crowd taunts Jesus by asking if he is  “the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon…”  In other words, the crowd is mocking Jesus by making fun of his heritage and the low standing of his family. John 7 states the situation even more starkly as , “even his brothers did not believe in him.”  Matthew 12 shows Jesus refusing to speak to his relatives when they come to speak with him.   At the end of his ministry, Jesus commends the care of his mother to  St. John the Theologian. It is John who is standing at the foot of the cross with Mary and not any of Jesus’ brothers.  They are so estranged  Jesus asks John to care for his mother.  After the death and Resurrection of Jesus James doesn’t seem to occupy a preeminent  place of honor with the other followers of Jesus.  In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul reports Jesus appeared to  Peter, the Twelve, the five hundred, and then to James. In short, Jesus appears to the mob before he shows himself to James. It almost seemed like James was an afterthought.

Perhaps James was not ready to meet the Resurrected Jesus and needed the testimony of others before him to accept what his own senses would eventually confirm.  We probably will never know.  What we do know is shortly thereafter James is transformed. He becomes the leader of the Church in Jerusalem[1] and an extremely pious person.  He is referred to as James the Just in various traditions.  James is said to have prayed so much his knees became gnarled like a camel’s. The Acts of the Apostles shows James to be an instrumental figure in the Council of Jerusalem, a pivotal event in early Church history. It is this council that facilitates outreach to the Gentiles.

Unfortunately, James meets a horrible end.  He is thrown from the top of the Temple and then stoned to death by the crowd.  Even more tragically, the church he headed did not live much beyond him.     In contemporary Catholic language, James would have been the leader of a “rite” that was heavily Jewish in flavor. It was centered in Jerusalem and the Temple. Sadly, his flock was destroyed by the Romans in the First Century after an aborted uprising. It is the Pauline branch of the church—the church of the Gentiles –that ultimately survives and prospers. James is credited with writing the universal epistle bearing his name in the New Testament. This letter is not only  deemed pseudonymous, and probably not  his work, but has been labeled  an “epistle of straw” by Martin Luther.[2]  

James’ life reads like one of futility at worse or one with a lot of ups and downs at best. He seems to be late to the party and sadly ends up being one of the first to leave the party. He was the son who stayed home and cared for his family while Jesus carried out his ministry.  Afterwards he is one of the first Christian martyrs after Stephen the Protomartyr.

Why then am I so fascinated with this character?  Well, there are a lot of reasons.  The first is he is a man of mystery.  Inquiring minds want to know how exactly he was related to Jesus.  Was he truly the biological brother of Jesus? There is even confusion about whether or not he was one of the Twelve.[3]   And of course, there was the inscription on that ossuary…[4]

There is another more potent element to my personal attraction to St. James.  Someone who had it so wrong for so long could still be accepted by the early Church. There was no condemnation of James by other Christians for his previous disbelief.  He was accepted for who he was and for his metanoia.  James’ later life was that of Christian perfection, and one many would aspire to.  The fact his branch of Christianity did not survive does not obviate the good work it did under his leadership. His legacy lives on through the New Testament and the Liturgy of St. James, one of the oldest extant Christian liturgies.[5]  There is a chance for redemption for all of us, even if we did get it wrong initially.

James is one of the most underrated personages in modern Christianity.  In the Eastern Church he is commemorated on the Sunday after Christmas and on October 23.

[1] Peter, the leader of the Twelve is forced to leave Jerusalem by the authorities. 

[2] The epistle has come under intense scrutiny during the Protestant Reformation.  James seems to insist salvation is through faith and works.  This debate is documented elsewhere and is not discussed here.  The Letter of James was also thought to institute the Sacrament of Anointing by Catholics and Orthodox.  This sacrament was later rejected by Luther.  Again, this is not germane to this particular article.  There is a church very near my current residence dedicated to St. James.  There is a sign outside the Church designating it as the “straw church”.

[3] There are a lot of people named James in the New Testament.  It was a very common name, translated as Jacob.  Christian tradition has a hard time keeping track of all of them.  One tradition associates James the Brother of  Jesus with James the Less, one of the Apostles.  Unfortunately, this is far from certain and we will probably never find out if this is the case.  

[4] An ossuary was unveiled approximately twenty years ago with the name “James, son of Joseph and brother of Jesus” inscribed on its side.  A battle over its authenticity has been going on since then.

[5] Again, St. James probably did not author this liturgy. Nevertheless, many scholars believe this liturgy is rooted in the traditions originating in this geographic area or this church.

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