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James the Greater, Apostle, First Century
This James is called “the Greater” because his vocation to serve Jesus preceded that of the other apostle with the same name. James the Greater was the brother of John and the son of Zebedee. One tradition, derived from the information in several of the Gospels, tells us that James and John were first cousins of Jesus. With his brother, James was a fisherman working in his father’s business until called by Jesus.
Neither James nor John fully understood at first what they were being called to do. Matthew tells us that their mother asked Jesus to give James and John the places of honor, one at his left hand, the other at his right hand, when his kingdom was established (Mt. 20:20-21). We can assume that James was held in high esteem by Jesus. He, John, and Peter were the only apostles present for the raising from the dead of Jairus’ daughter, as well as the Transfiguration of Jesus, and these three were in the garden of Gethsemane with Jesus.
James and John were noted for their hot temperament, which was probably the basis for the nickname “sons of thunder” (Mk 3:17), which Jesus gave them. One story illustrates that temperament well. When Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, he and his disciples passed through a Samaritan town. (The animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews at that time were roughly equivalent to that between the Jews and Palestinians today.) When the Samaritans learned that Jesus’ destination was Jerusalem, a city hated by the Samaritans, they refused to house him and the disciples. James and John, still not fully understanding Jesus’ mission, asked him, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them? Jesus turned and rebuked them....” (Lk 9:54-55)
James was the first of the apostles to be martyred at Jerusalem around the year 42. The story is told of his accuser who, seeing the great and unwavering faith of James before King Herod, became a Christian on the spot and was condemned to be killed together with James. As they were approaching the place where they were to be beheaded, the accuser turned to James and asked his forgiveness for testifying against him. James turned to his accuser, kissed him and said, “Peace be with you, brother.”
A doubtful tradition, which sprang up in about the eighth century, had this saint preaching in Spain. It is unlikely that James would have traveled to Spain to preach and then return to martyrdom in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, James has become the patron saint of Spain as well as the patron of laborers, pilgrims, and those suffering from rheumatism.
This saint is celebrated by a Feast on July 25.
James' message today: “Peace be with you, brother.” What a wonderful offering by James to one who has falsely testified against him. The man who testified against James knew that he was giving false testimony, yet, when he realized his error, James forgave him.