|Sts. James (right) and John (left) as children|
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 10:35-45
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” [James and John] said to him, “We can.”
The sons of Zebedee, by way of their mother, request of the Savior to be seated one on his right and the other on the left in his kingdom. The good Jesus, seeing their zeal (for which reason they were called the “Sons of Thunder”) and recognizing their need for yet further purification, calls these two apostles to lay down their lives in service of the Gospel.
James and John were the first of the apostles to ask for the cup of martyrdom, and each received that cup in a privileged manner.
The Martyrdom of St. James
St. James the Greater was privileged to be the first of the apostles to give his life for Christ. We must distinguish this James, the son of Zebedee, from the other James, who is called the “brother of the Lord”.
St. James the Greater is the brother of St. John the Beloved, the son of Zebedee and Salome, whom Christ took apart together with Peter and John as a special witness to great moments in his public ministry (the raising of the little girl, the Transfiguration, and the Agony in the Garden).
St. James the Less was the bishop of Jerusalem, called the Just, and the Brother of the Lord (meaning his cousin). This James wrote the biblical letter.
It was James the Greater, the brother of John, who is said to have preached the Gospel in Spain, who was first martyred among the apostles, and whose bones are now venerated at Compostela.
The great privilege which James received through this zealous and over-bold request to sit at Jesus’ right was to be the first to lay down his life out of love for God and neighbor. Seeking to be first, he truly learnt to be the first in humility and charity. What a grace to be chosen as the first of the apostles to shed his blood in imitation of Christ!
The Martyrdom of St. John
It is often said that St. John the Beloved (the Evangelist) is the only of the apostles who was not martyred, and this is true. St. John did not die a martyrs’ death, he did not shed his blood for Christ.
However, according to the ancient tradition, St. John lived through two attempts upon his life. Once, when he was to be boiled in oil, but came forth from the cauldron healthy and well. And another time, when he was given a poisoned chalice, but remained unharmed.
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide writes of the “martyrdom” of St. John:
“S. John also drank of this cup when he was plunged by Domitian, at Rome, before the Latin Gate, into a cauldron of boiling oil, and came forth renewed in strength; so that by a new miracle he was a martyr by living rather by dying.
“Again, not only Prochorus, S. John’s disciple, in his Life of S. John (the truth of which is rightly suspected by Baronius), but also S. Isidore declares that S. John really drank the cup of poison, but that he also drank it without harm; whence also he is generally represented in pictures holding a cup. And, lastly, we may say that the whole life of S. John was a continual martyrdom, for he lived a very long time after all the Apostles, to the year of our Lord 101; and this long absence from Christ, his beloved—after Whom he was continually longing—was a lengthened martyrdom to him, as it was also to the Blessed Virgin, to whom he had been given as a son by Christ on the Cross.
“Again, S. John underwent a special martyrdom while he stood with the Blessed Virgin by the Cross on Mount Calvary, and beheld Christ—his Life, Whom he loved more than his own life—suffering the bitter pains of the Cross for three hours.”
Theology in art
St. James the Greater is often pictured with a staff in hand. This represents the pilgrim’s staff, since he traveled far in bringing the Gospel to Spain. Further, the staff recalls how many pilgrims travel to venerate his relics in the church of Santiago de Compostela.
St. John is sometimes shown holding a chalice, which symbolizes the chalice of martyrdom which he requested from our Savior. Further, this cup represents the poisoned chalice which he received though unharmed.
Sts. James and John, Pray for us!