The story of St James the Apostle (whose Festival we celebrate today) is in fact two stories, only marginally connected. The first is the story we read in the New Testament, beginning with two brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee, plying the family trade of fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus calls them, and, together with Simon Peter, they form the innermost core of Jesus’s disciples. They were there on the Mount of Transfiguration; they were there in the Garden of Gethsemane; there were there in the Upper Room when the risen Lord appeared to them, and when some weeks later the Holy Spirit descended in wind and fire. And then, later in the Acts of the Apostles, we read of James’s summary execution at the hands of Herod Antipas, the first of the Twelve to win the martyr’s crown.
When Judas fell from grace, an election was held to make up the number of the Twelve. When James offered up his life in martyrdom no such election was held. James, gone to glory, remained an apostle still, his apostleship sealed by his death. Once, long before, James and John and their mother had begged special places for them beside Christ in his kingdom. It was a foolish favour to ask, and Jesus promised them, not thrones but a cup of suffering. James drank his cup of suffering, and the heavenly throne was his.
The other story of St James is what Christian legend has made of it in later centuries. The body of James, it was said, was taken to Spain, and there on the furthest edge of the inhabited world became a place of pilgrimage. They called it the Field of Stars, Compostela, and dedicated it to St James, Santiago; and there is stands today, still drawing hundreds of thousands of pilgrims along the Camino, the pilgrims’ road. Today, when the 25th of July, St James’s Day, falls on a Sunday, it is a time of special celebration, the start of a holy year.
What is the connection between the stories: James the fisherman on the shores of Galilee and James the Great in his Field of Stars on the Atlantic coast? Both are to do with walking the way. ‘Follow me’, said Jesus to James and his brother; and they did. They followed him to the mountain of Transfiguration, and to the Garden of Gethsemane, and to the Upper Room, and back to the Sea of Galilee. ‘Can you drink the cup that I shall drink?’ asked Jesus. ‘We can’, they said, and James followed him there as well, to a martyr’s death. And the Camino, the pilgrims’ road to Compostela, invites people of all faiths and none to follow in the steps of St James, who followed in the steps of Jesus, to the journey’s end. We pray, as St James might have prayed:
O let me see Thy footmarks,
And in them plant mine own;
My hope to follow duly
Is in Thy strength alone.
O guide me, call me, draw me,
Uphold me to the end;
And then in heaven receive me,
My Saviour and my Friend.