Every saint’s feast day is actually a celebration of the life and mission of the whole Church that is made present in that person’s journey. The Feasts of the Apostles and of Mary are most especially days that the whole Church can ask the question “How does this person’s life challenge me to be more authentic in participating in Jesus’ work?” Or maybe we want to think on the back side of the question and ask “From what patterns of evil or sin did this person need to be saved in order to follow Jesus? Are they anything like my own ambition or greed or weakness?”
The Saint James that is remembered in today’s liturgy is the brother of John, two fishermen that Jesus called away from their own father and the work he had assigned them to work for Jesus’ Father. Both of the brothers figure in several gospel passages as the “sons of thunder” which leads us to believe that they were men whose passions were firmly articulated in their relationships. They are also enshrined in texts from both Matthew and Mark that describe their desire to be powerful in the Jesus’ kingdom by sitting at Jesus’ right and left when he assumed his full authority. Today’s celebration presents us with the Matthean version of the story wherein their mother approaches Jesus with this outrageously ambitious request – a “softening” of the account from Mark where the young men ask for themselves.
Jesus responds to the request with a tremendous challenge: can these ambitious young men be converted from their need for their own glory, to put their energies and their lives on the line for God’s glory?
This of course is the point in the story where we begin to see the parallels with our own lives. Who of us is willing to have our personal ambitions “turned around” – re-focused away from ourselves and focused only upon the furtherance of God’s work? Who among us is willing to be “constantly given up to death for the sake of Jesus” as Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians states today – “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body”?
The Apostles help us to see that each of us who are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death first of all. Thus our efforts to control our world, our need to be powerful and to dominate our brothers and sisters to prove that we are important, in effect our idolatry of self, must be put to death so that THEN we can have the power chosen for us by God in the Kingdom of God. How often did James and John wonder what their personal ambition had gotten them into? How often did it occur to them that being first in the Kingdom of Jesus meant being the first to suffer and to die? As this St. James, in fact was the first of the twelve to die – a responsive yes from God to his converted ambition.
The invitation I hear today is to ask myself the question: When I feel “afflicted in every way, . . . perplexed, . . . persecuted, . . . and struck down . . . ”, is it because I am faithful to the work of the Kingdom of God? If so I am never abandoned or destroyed, because like James, I “know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us . . . in his presence.”
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