Be Careful What You Wish For
A Reflection on St James by Dr. Diana Lowry
Licensed Lay Reader @ St John’s, Epping
When I was growing up I was told the story of King Midas; I suspect many of you know the story but for those who don’t it tells of a Greek King of Phrygia, now in Asian Turkey, who had everything that he could possibly need. He still wanted more, however, and so when he was granted one wish for anything that he desired he decided that he wanted everything that he touched to turn to gold. His wish came true but not entirely as he expected. To begin with everything went well. The chair he touched turned to gold and so did the vase. Sitting down for a meal was less good – the plate and cutlery turned to gold but so did the food and drink, so by the end of the day he was a rather hungry and thirsty. But it was what happened in the evening that made him understand how his greed had caused a problem: his daughter came into the room and as he hugged her she turned into a gold statue. At this point he went back to the man who had granted his wish and asked him to reverse it. The experience had made him content with the wealth that he already had. His story has been used as an example of being careful about what you wish for.
Today we commemorate St James the Greater who also discovered that wishes can sometimes end differently from how you expect. In today’s gospel passage we hear about the mother of James and John speaking to Jesus and asking that her sons sit on either side of him when he inherited his kingdom. It is easy to make this an example of a Jewish mother wanting the best for her sons, but this is to misread the situation: while Jesus was a great teacher and did talk about his kingdom on many occasions it took a great deal of faith and vision to be able to believe that this was going to happen any time soon. In fact this passage follows Jesus foretelling his death and resurrection for the third time and he is not looking anything like a King. Although we know that God’s kingdom looks different from any other kingdom that we know, the disciples still had to understand this. Or maybe James’ mother did and this is a story of a mother’s vision rather than trying to get her sons the top jobs. However I doubt if that vision included seeing her son martyred which Jesus warned him about:
Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ ‘We are able’, replied James and John. He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’ (Matt 20:22-23)
James’ brother John was not martyred but he was exiled to the island of Patmos from which he probably wrote down ‘Revelation’. For him the price he had to pay was a long life spent in exile surrounded by water.
Following Jesus is immensely rewarding but it comes with the motto of ‘carrying the cross’. For each of us that will be different and for most of us it will not require martyrdom in this way: in other parts of the world, however, to be a Christian is dangerous and some do become martyrs. We need to pray for them.
James, and his brother John, was a fisherman and with their father Zebedee they owned a fishing business that was big and rich enough to employ others. They were among the first people who answered Jesus’ call to be ‘fishers of men’ and made up part of the inner circle with Peter. This meant that they were present at special events such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Mount of Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane. Our passage from Acts tells us that James was killed by the sword on Herod’s instructions in about 42 AD, just 9 years after the crucifixion. This means that James had the dubious privilege of being the first apostle to be martyred. This then is what we know about James.
However there is a legend dating from the 6th Century which links him to Spain. This happens to coincide with a time when the Holy Land was inaccessible to Christians as it was held by the Jews, Persians and then Muslims. In any case travel to the Holy Land from Europe was expensive and difficult. Christians were encouraged to go on pilgrimage to alternative sites. And so places sprung up where pilgrims could travel as an alternative to the Holy Land, and for those concerned about such things, it would tick the box that they were devout and good and worthy of heaven! St James provided one of these places in the form of Santiago de Compostela after he supposedly travelled to western Spain after the crucifixion: his earthly remains are said to lie buried in the church built on that site.
I am not very impressed by the story connecting St James to Compostela but that didn’t stop me from walking the English Way from A Coruna. It was a special time spent with other people from this church. There were many conversations and enjoyment of nature; a special Communion service held in the forest and the amazing feeling of arriving in the square by the Cathedral. The cathedral itself was very welcoming and inclusive. During the service of Mass the mood was joyful and full of hope and praise: it was like a second Pentecost as the Holy Spirit circulated in the cathedral full of people from across the world. Even if one doesn’t believe the legend it doesn’t stop Santiago de Compostela being a ‘thin place,’ somewhere where we can feel God to be very close. I am sure He understands that some of us need relics and other images to help us in our faith journey. I would presume to think that He doesn’t mind what brings us to Him in worship and praise, He is just so happy that we come!
It is important to remember that saints are people who point us to God. Whether you find seeing the possible relics of St James uplifting is less important than whether you learn from him: he was a man of faith who saw Christ as a King even as he approached Holy Week and death and, to many, looked like a failed teacher. And after Jesus died and rose again James continued to believe in his kingdom and share it with those he met. Herod only had him killed because he was effective at drawing people into God’s kingdom.
We are all pilgrims and Cardinal Basil Hume reminds us what that means in his book ‘To Be a Pilgrim’:
When we have acknowledged the existence of God and learned that He has intervened in our affairs, we should begin to respond. We want to find out more about Him, to try to be in touch with Him, and then discover that we should obey Him and serve Him. We have come to recognise that in God are to be found the ultimate meaning and purpose of all things, and especially of ourselves. This response is what we call ‘the spiritual life.’
Our journey in this life is a pilgrimage and going as a pilgrim to somewhere like Compostela can be faith and life affirming. But even if you can’t do that I encourage you to find some different ways to help you in your pilgrimage.
DL. Feast day of St James, Apostle & Martyr. 25th July 2021