26th July 2020 - Feast of St James
Click heToday we mark the feast of St James, after whom our sister church, St James Birch, was named. This is a change to our published programme, you might say, as the feast actually fell yesterday.
The James we celebrate was a Galilean fisherman, one of the first called by Jesus alongside his younger brother John and one of the twelve male followers who came to be identified as the apostles. He is present at the Transfiguration, alongside his brother and Peter. These three are also chosen to accompany Jesus into the house of Jairus to heal his daughter and then later, to pray with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion.
It seems perhaps that they were an inner circle amongst Jesus’ disciples – although when James’ mother pushes for her sons to be accorded privileged status her request is declined and the others are outraged.
We also know that Jesus had a nickname for the two brothers – Boanerges, which means sons of thunder: could it be that they had hot tempers? The meaning is not clear. But there is an illustration in Luke 9, when Jesus and his disciples are turned away by a Samaritan village: and it is the brothers who offer to call down fire on the village, but are mercifully ignored by Jesus.
Finally, we read in Acts 12 that James the brother of John is executed by Herod Antipas in the year 44, some 14 years after the resurrection of Jesus – it seems he is an unlucky casualty in Herod’s wider political manoeuvres.
There is also another of the twelve called James, the son of Alphaeus, about whom we know even less, and then there is James the brother of Jesus, who appears as a leader of the early church in Jerusalem, and who seems to be behind the letter of James.
So how do we relate to our St James, a follower of Jesus from 2,000 years ago? The gaps between our lives and his are wide.
Over the intervening centuries so much has changed. Not just cars and computers, but ideas we take for granted – how we understand the world around us and what animates it, what we mean by “truth”, ideas like individual personhood or human rights.
And James’s relationship with God and with faith seems unreachable: He talked with, walked with, lived with Jesus, was a witness to his resurrection, the breakfast on the beach by Lake Galilee, and then Pentecost and the birth of the church. His faith is built of so much that is directly lived, physical, intimate.
By contrast we hope in what we have not seen.
We also contend with the accretions of 20 centuries of church history, its hierarchies and traditions. Martin Luther famously said, “nothing so masks the face of God as religion.” But like the wheat and the weeds Jane spoke about last week, it can be hard to separate out the original message, once so fresh.
Through the centuries artists have tried to bridge that gap. Or have they? I haven’t been able to find any images of James as a first century Palestinian Jewish fisherman. Many artists bring him into their own day, including those that show him as a Spanish pilgrim. And then there are those pictures where he and his fellow apostles are given mythical bodies and flowing robes, idealised, lifted out of their historical context.
Here in church we have a statue of James very much in that style. The statue was originally unpainted I believe, one of a set of four which stood in St James Birch, two each side of the altarpiece of the last supper.
He seems more European than Middle-Eastern? It’s not clear. He is old – even though at a guess James was in his mid-forties when he died. Perhaps his grey beard is a sign of wisdom? (Not necessarily, I hear you say!) His robes would have been ill suited to tramping from village to village, and positively dangerous in a fishing boat. He could equally be a Greek god or an English druid.
In today’s world it’s perhaps easy to dismiss this mythical style of representation, as historically inaccurate, hard to relate to and also showing a narrow, white-centric cultural bias.
However, in turning their back on any attempt at surface realism perhaps the sculptor is trying to represent something archetypal, that we all share, regardless of geography? And when Spanish artists paint James in contemporary dress, perhaps they suggest something similar about time. That our faith is not simply rooted in one place in the past. It draws on universal truths which continuously bubble up in the eternal present.
And this is true for us as we meet in the sharing of bread and wine. I find it humbling to imagine James - who was present at the last supper, in the upper room - later celebrating the words and gestures of the Eucharist much as we do.
For all our different experience, we take our place alongside each other in time and place, with all the company of the saints, open hands outstretched, to receive that which we no longer see.
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Richard Young (Rector)