25 July 2017

Saint James, witness
to the Transfiguration
and a ‘Son of Thunder’

An icon of the Transfiguration seen in Piskopiano in Crete earlier this month … the three disciples in the icon are Peter, James and John (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Today [25 July] in the Calendar of the Church is the Feast of Saint James, the son of Zebedee and one of the Twelve Disciples.

The English name James comes from Italian Giacomo, a variant of Giacobo, which is derived from Iacobus in Latin and Ἰάκωβος in Greek. It is the same name as Jacob in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. In French, the name is Jacques, in Spanish it is Jaime, and in Catalan it is Jaume. Variations include Diego in Spanish, giving us San Diego and Santiago, and Diogo in Portuguese.

This Saint James, traditionally regarded as the first apostle to be martyred, is said to have been a son of Zebedee and Salome, and brother of Saint John the Evangelist. He is also called Saint James the Great to distinguish him from Saint James, son of Alphaeus, and Saint James, the brother of the Lord, or Saint James the Just.

His father Zebedee was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, and probably lived in or near Bethsaida in present Galilee, perhaps in Capernaum. His mother Salome was one of the pious women who followed Christ and ‘ministered unto him of their substance.’ But James and John are also known as ‘the Sons of Thunder’ (see Mark 3: 17).

This Saint James is one of the first disciples. The Synoptic Gospels say James and John were with their father by the seashore when Christ called them to follow him (see Matthew 4: 21-22; Mark 1: 19-20). James was one of the three disciples, along with Peter and John, who witnesses to the Transfiguration, which we remember on Sunday week, 6 August.

James and John, or their mother, ask Christ to be seated on his right and left in his glory. They also wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town, but are rebuked for this (see Luke 9: 51-6).

The Acts of the Apostles records that Herod (probably Herod Agrippa) had Saint James executed by sword, making him the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament (see Acts 12: 1-2).

The site of martyrdom is said to be marked by the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of Saint James in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, where his head is said to be buried under the altar, marked by a piece of red marble and surrounded by six votive lamps.

Spanish legends claim that Saint James preached the Gospel in Iberia and that after he was martyred his disciples carried his body by sea to Iberia, where they landed at Padrón on the coast of Galicia, and took it inland for burial at Santiago de Compostela. But these legends date from the eighth or ninth century and no earlier.

Saint James became the patron saint of Spain, and Santiago de Compostela became the end point of the popular pilgrim route known as the Camino. The emblem of Saint James is the scallop, which has become a general symbol of pilgrims and pilgrimage.

In Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, the South Transept was known as the Chapel of Saint James and Saint Mary Magdalene. It was probably built along the lines of the cruciform design favoured by the Cistercians, and seems to have been strongly influenced by the design of Mellifont Abbey in Co Louth.

A monument on the west wall of Saint James’s Chapel commemorates Cornelius O’Dea, Bishop of Limerick (1400-1426). His beautiful mitre and crozier are among the exhibits in the Hunt Museum in Limerick.

Tomorrow, I am attending the wedding of a former student in Saint James’s Church, Crinken, near Bray.

Bishop O’Dea’s mitre (left) and crozier (right) on display in the Hunt Museum, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Readings: Jeremiah 45: 1-5; Psalm 126; Acts 11: 27 to 12: 2; Matthew 20: 20-28.


Merciful God,
whose holy apostle Saint James,
leaving his father and all that he had,
was obedient to the calling of your Son Jesus Christ
and followed him even to death:
Help us, forsaking the false attractions of the world,
to be ready at all times to answer your call without delay;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

we have eaten at your table
and drunk from the cup of your kingdom.
Teach us the way of service
that in compassion and humility
we may reflect the glory of Jesus Christ,
Son of Man and Son of God, our Lord.

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