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St. James: an Example of True Greatness

by Joel V. Ocampo


On July 25, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Saint James, the Greater, one of the Twelve Apostles of Christ. According to Church Tradition, he was called “the Great” or “the Greater” simply to distinguish him from another James, known as James the Lesser, also an Apostle. According to Mark, the Lord named James and his brother John “Boanerges” that means “sons of thunder” (Mk. 3:17) because of their aggressiveness. For example, when the Samaritans refused to allow Jesus to stay in their village, James and John saw this and asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village (Lk. 9:51-56). On another occasion, James and John boldly said to Jesus, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left” (Mk. 10:37). In this story, Jesus taught James on the value of true greatness.


St. James Matamoros, or St. James the Moor Slayer | Cathedral of Burgos


Among the Twelve Apostles, Saint James was one of the closest friends of Jesus, along with Peter and John. The three of them witnessed the great miracles and important events in the life of Jesus, including the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mk. 5:37), the transfiguration (Mk. 9:2), and the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mk. 14:33). When Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple, Saint James was one of those who asked the Lord, “Tell us, when will this happen, and what sign will there be when all these things are about to come to an end?” (Mk. 13:3-4). Throughout the Gospels, Saint James was mentioned in at least ten significant events (Mt. 4:21; 10:2; 17:1; 26:37; 27:56; Mk. 1:29; 5:37;10:35; 13:3; Lk. 9:54).


If we read the Scriptures, we’ll discover more significant reasons why Saint James was called “The Great”. Below are the three lessons we can learn from significant events involving St. James:

  1. true greatness comes from serving;

  2. true greatness shoots from patience and understanding; and

  3. true greatness arises in accompanying the downcast.


True Greatness Comes from Serving

In the Gospel for today’s feast, St. Matthew tells us that the mother of James and John was the one who requested, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom” (Mt. 20:20-21); but in the Gospel written by St. Mark, in whom St. Matthew based his writings, we were told that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and boldly said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Take note of the demand: “do for us whatever we ask of you”. How aggressive! However, the Lord calmly replied, “What do you wish me to do for you?” They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left” (Mk. 10:35-37).


These two wanted to be great by becoming persons in authority. Thus, the Lord used this aggressive request to teach them and the other disciples a lesson on true greatness. The Lord said, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:42-45). Therefore, Saint James learned that true greatness comes from serving, and giving one’s life to save many.


True enough, Saint James served and devoted his life in spreading the Good News of Salvation, until he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in the year 44 B.C.E. (Acts 12:2). There was also a story that when Saint James was about to be beheaded, his accuser was so impressed by his courage and greatness that he was converted to Christianity, and was beheaded with him.


True Greatness Shoots from Patience and Understanding

In the story of the Samaritan inhospitality in Luke 9:51-56, the Lord taught James and John that anger that desire to call down fire from heaven will only lead to conflicts, division, and dissension. Instead of getting even with one’s enemy or desiring revenge when experiencing rejection, being patient and understanding will lead to true greatness. The Lord’s solution to this Samaritan inhospitality is simple: “they journeyed to another village” (Lk. 9:56). Through His action, the Lord is like teaching St. James: “If they rejected you, go on. Move forward by looking for alternatives.”


Saint James was able to use this lesson on being patient and understanding when he preached in modern-day Spain. According to tradition, Saint James experienced difficulty in his mission to the pagans. When he was about to lose his patience, the Virgin appeared with the Child Jesus standing on a pillar and asked Saint James to build a church on the site, promising that “It will stand from that moment until the end of time in order that God may work miracles and wonders through my intercession for all those who place themselves under my patronage.” This first Marian apparition in history, on the bank of the Ebro River in Saragossa, Spain became known as the Our Lady of the Pillar.


True Greatness Arises in Accompanying the Downcast

As one of the closest friends of Jesus, Saints James witnessed the transfiguration and the agony in the garden. During the transfiguration, St. Luke narrates to us, “Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and spoke of Jesus’ exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:30-31). Reading between the lines, Jesus, knowing His upcoming passion in Jerusalem requested Peter, James, and John to accompany Him in time of distress. Similarly, during the agony in the garden, the Lord told the three disciples, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me” (Mt. 26:37-38). With these two intimate experiences with the Lord, Saint James learned that true greatness arises in accompanying the downcast.


The second reading for today’s feast summed it up, “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:8-10). The Lord “encourages us in every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affiliation with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God” (2 Cor. 1:4).


St. James the Apsotle, Patron Saint of Spain | Wikimedia commons


Prayer to St. James the Greater

O Glorious St. James, because of your fervor and generosity Jesus chose you to witness his glory on the Mount and his agony in the Garden. Obtain for us strength and consolation in the unending struggles of this life. Help us to follow Christ constantly and generously, to be victors over all our difficulties, and to receive the crown of glory in heaven. Amen.


St. James, Apostle of Christ, pray for us!


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