July 25th, Feast of St. James the Greater
And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and [Jesus] named them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder (Mark 3:17)
Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. James the Greater, who was the brother of St. John the Evangelist. This is the St. James who was first among the Apostles to be martyred (by Herod in Jerusalem) and whose relics are venerated in Compostella, Spain.
St. James the Greater was not called “the brother of the Lord” (that is St. James the Less), but he and his younger brother St. John were called Boanerges or “sons of Thunder”. Why did Jesus give them this designation?
The fiery style of the sons of Zebedee
There are certainly several incidents recorded in the Gospels which indicate the fiery preaching style of Sts. James and John. Certainly, these two were burning in their evangelical zeal, even to the point of some slight imperfection – this impetuousness was, of course, purified through their experience of our Savior’s Passion and Resurrection (as well as in the descent of the Holy Spirit).
Consider how the two brothers complained against a certain man who was exorcising demons in the name of Jesus, even though he was not among their number – recall that this scene follows immediately upon our Lord’s admonition to humility, for the greater is to be as the lesser.
And John, answering, said: Master, we saw a certain man casting out devils in your name: and we forbade him, because he follows not with us. And Jesus said to him: Forbid him not: for he that is not against you is for you. (Luke 9:49-50)
Or again, consider how these two desired to cause the physical (and spiritual) destruction of those who had rejected Christ:
And he sent messengers before his face: and going, they entered into a city of the Samaritans, to prepare for him. And they received him not, because his face was of one going to Jerusalem. And when his disciples, James and John, had seen this, they said: Lord, will you that we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? And turning, he rebuked them, saying: you know not of what spirit you are. The Son of man came not to destroy souls, but to save. And they went into another town. (Luke 9:52-56)
Again, these two – by way of their mother (who was Salome, the sister of James the Less) – requested the place of highest honor in the Kingdom:
Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, adoring and asking something of him. Who said to her: What will you? She said to him: say that these my two sons may sit, the one on your right hand, and the other on your left, in your kingdom. And Jesus answering, said: You know not what you ask. Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink? They say to him: We can. He says to them: My chalice indeed you shall drink; but to sit on my right or left hand is not mine to give to you, but to them for whom it is prepared by my Father. (Matthew 21:20-23)
It was in this last exchange that James won the honor of being the first of the Apostles to be martyred, and John the glory of enduring and surviving his martyrdom.
The martyrdom of St. James the Greater
Fourteen years after our Lord promised him the chalice of martyrdom (which he gained through the request of his mother), St. James the Greater won his crown at the hands of Herod Agrippa I. In A.D. 44, King Herod (grandson of Herod the Great), implemented a most intense persecution of the Church of God in an attempt to increase the strict observance of the Mosaic Law and Jewish customs.
And at the same time, Herod the king stretched forth his hands, to afflict some of the church. And he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. (Acts 12:1-2)
By this time, the “thunder” of St. James had been purified of all worldly ambition and vain glory. Now, his thunder and zeal was wholly intent upon the spread of the Kingdom of God. Seeing his Master and Savior die and rise, and receiving the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, St. James’ will was wholly conformed to the Divine Will.
While, before, the zeal of this Apostle had lead to certain excesses and even rash judgment, now this zeal was purified and all together holy. Rather than seeking to exalt himself above others, St. James willingly offered his own life in the service of the people of God.
The excellence of these two brothers
Consider the commentary of the Jesuit Father Cornelius a’ Lapide:
“Christ called James and John by a new name, Banerges, Sons of thunder, because He charged them above the rest of the Apostles with the glorious preaching of His Gospel, that by the holiness of their lives and their miracles they might be like thunderbolts, and might, by the power of their voices, shake as with claps of thunder unbelievers and barbarians, and bring them to repentance and a holy life.
“This appears in the history of S. James. Because of his liberty and zeal in preaching, he was the first among the Apostles to incur the wrath of Herod and the Jews, by whom he was beheaded (Acts xii.). The same converted the Spaniards, and by their means the inhabitants of the East and West Indies, to the faith of Christ.
“John preached for a very long period, and very efficaciously. He was the last of the Apostles to depart this life, which he did after he had subdued Asia and other provinces to Christ by his preaching. Hence, also, his Gospel begins with divine thunder, as it were an eagle of God crying with a voice of thunder, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (S. Epiphanius, Hæres. 73). Wherefore, when he was writing his Gospel, there were lightnings and thunderings from heaven, like as it lightened from Mount Sinai when God gave the law to Moses.”
St. James the Greater, Pray for us!