Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. Today we remember St James and two of our readings give a snapshot of his brief role in the story of the Gospel. A fisherman with his brother John, in his father’s business, they were called by Jesus right at the beginning of his ministry, as the first of his disciples while mending their nets. They have the nickname ‘Boanerges’, which means ‘sons of thunder’, possibly a reference to their impetuous and fervent nature. It might also hint at their parents, afterall it is their mother who tries to fit them up for top jobs.
James seems to have been part of an inner core of Jesus’ disciples, present at the Transfiguration, at his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane – when ironically Jesus prays for the cup to be taken away from him. That’s the cup he drinks of that he tells James and John they will have to drink too. And James does.
He became the first leader of the Jerusalem Church. Paul is taken to James after his conversion and when Peter escapes from prison, he asks for James to be told, not knowing that he has been killed by a sword-thrust on the orders of Herod Agrippa, sometime around AD44. He got to drink from the cup and he got to hold the top job. There is something about leadership that brings difficult decisions, having to stand up and be counted, be in the firing line when things go wrong, when attacks come for speaking out. It is no different today if a Christian leader uses their position to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak out for the defence of the weak and call to account.
The great shrine for St James is Santiago de Compostela in North West Spain. It is one of the great pilgrimage sites of the medieval world – ranking next to Rome and Jerusalem. It claims to hold the relics of St James, having been transferred there from Jerusalem in the nineth century. The evidence for that is thin. But it remains a major focus of pilgrimage today and the Camino de Santiago remains popular, even the subject of some interesting TV programmes of modern pilgrims from all backgrounds and faiths walking together and talking as they go.
The big symbol of pilgrimage to Santiago is the scallop shell, possibly because it represents the setting sun’s rays fanned out, and also because they are readily available at nearby beaches. It is also a handy tool for baptism and I tend to use one whenever I baptise, because it is a reminder that life is a pilgrimage of faith, of doubt, of struggle and courage to drink what you’d rather not drink, of hope and trust in Jesus Christ.
Earlier this week, I came across the poetic Kyrie confession we used at the beginning of this service. It was shared by a priest in the Bro Tudno Ministry Area in the diocese of Bangor, in North West Wales. It uses the poetry of RS Thomas and George Herbert. You may know the poems it reflects. The first is about the meaning being in the waiting, by implication found when we still ourselves from the inanities and vast myriad of pressures and commitments, of stuff we fill our time with. The stuff that stops us reflecting, thinking, going deeper into God.
The phrase ‘the meaning is in the waiting’ comes from a poem by RS Thomas – the final line in his poem ‘Kneeling’. I’ll end with it in a moment. He talks about how being stilled turns the air into a ‘staircase for silence’ and this being the gateway to perception and presence. Staircases are resonant with Jacob’s ladder and his dream of angels ascending and descending. Jacob is the Hebrew version of James. It is in the silence that God can speak, it is in the different rhythm of the pilgrim that meaning is clarified, often when we are least expecting it.
I am beginning to read Rowan Williams’ latest book – Looking East in Winter. It’s a slow read and has already had me looking up words I don’t know in a dictionary and following up a reference in one of his other books – so this is going to take me a while. It is about Eastern Christian mysticism. In one passage he refers to one writer who contrasts the ascetic, who put crudely wants to escape from wordly pressures, and the contemplative who stays with them, delves into them and in so doing finds them to be a mine of treasure or a well to revive and water us, to see beauty.
This is a particularly striking image for where we are. The call of the pilgrim is not to escape but to change the journey. It is to find in this moment the signs of beauty we otherwise walk past unnoticed, the signs of grace where gift becomes a moment of God’s touch, the rays of sunlight that shine through the darkness illuminating and making it clear that darkness never overcomes or wins. It is to see this moment as a sign that nothing in all creation can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, as Paul put it.
As we do this, we find that the meaning is in the waiting, because waiting is where we are for we are always awaiting the final fulfilment of God’s eternal kingdom. It is the goal of our journey, it is the source of our life, it is the hope which brings us to being and holds us. It is the cup offered to James and from which he drank, knowing then that status is but an ephemera, the meaning is much deeper. And so, I end with RS Thomas’ poem, ‘Kneeling’.
Sermon for the Feast of St James, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 25th July 2021