You, or someone you know, may have walked The Camino de Santiago. This is the very pilgrimage which leads to the tomb of St. James the Apostle. Or maybe you have seen the movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen, which follows one man’s journey on the Camino. The Camino is a compilation of routes from major cities in Europe that lead to this pilgrimage site in Northern Spain. After Jerusalem and Rome, it is considered the next most important Christian pilgrimage. Over two and a half million people visit Santiago de Compostela every year. Today the route is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
Who is St. James the Apostle?
Son of Thunder. Son of Zebedee. St. James the Greater.
The Apostle James goes by a few different names and is not to be confused of James the Less, another of the Twelve Apostles.
He was one of the first disciples called by Jesus. As Jesus walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, He saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John, who were mending the nets of their boat. Upon Jesus’ call to James and his brother, they both left their father and followed Him.
When Jesus summoned the Apostles up to the mountain with Him, He appointed, “James, son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, whom He named Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). These two sons of thunder were reproached by Jesus in Mark 10 when they sought authority above the other Apostles saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” When Jesus asked them what this was, they answered, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus replied, “…to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Jesus then used this as an opportunity to teach the Apostles about true humility.
But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. -Mark 10:43-35
The Innermost Circle
Despite St. James’ need for correction, we refer to him as James “the Greater” because he, along with St. John and St. Peter, shared in an especially close relationship with Christ. These three men were the only ones with Jesus when He raised Jarius’ daughter from the dead, when He cured St. Peter’s mother-in-law, and who witnessed the Transfiguration. These three also accompanied Jesus during His Agony in the Garden (albeit sleeping).
I love the fact that Jesus’ closest friends were so real, so human! St. Peter doubted Jesus when He walked on water, yet Jesus still made him the rock of our Church. James ignorantly told Jesus that He should do whatever James asked of Him, and yet Jesus continued to love him and remain close friends with him. This should give us great hope!
St. James’ Life After Jesus’ Ascension
After Jesus’ Ascension, St. James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula to share the Good News of Jesus.
When he returned to Judea in 44 AD, he was martyred by King Herod Agrippa I who had James beheaded. He is considered to be the first of Jesus’ Apostles to be martyred.
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After his death, St. James’ followers brought his remains back to the Iberian Peninsula, or what is now known as Galicia in Spain. These remains are believed to be buried in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. He is considered the patron Saint of Spain and also of pilgrims. Not only did St. James make pilgrimage to Spain to spread the Gospel, but his followers made the same pilgrimage to Spain to put his body to rest. This site is now venerated by millions of people every year.
St. James is also considered a patron of arthritis. Legend tells us that when James was being led to his execution, he heard a man call out to him who had been suffering from this crippling disease. In his deep faith, this man pleaded with the Apostle to pray for his cure. St. James then said to him in reply, “In the name of Jesus Christ, for Whom I am being led to execution, stand up and bless your Creator.” Upon his words, the man was healed, stood up, and praised God.
How to Find Him
In Christian art, the Saints are often depicted with a symbol that is closely connected to the person’s life.
If you are trying to spot St. James in Christian art, keep your eye out for the attire of a pilgrim. He is often depicted with either a staff, a gourd (for drinking water), riding on a horse, or a scalloped shell.
Why a Scalloped Shell?
Why is a scalloped shell a symbol of pilgrimage? In the Middle Ages, it was common for priests to require pilgrimages as a form of penance. Upon completion, the pilgrim would have to prove his penance was fulfilled by providing a local souvenir. Scalloped shells can be naturally found near St. James’ tomb on the coast of Galicia, making it a fitting (and free) souvenir.
Shells have also been used in the Sacrament of Baptism. As Baptism is the beginning of one’s Christian journey, the symbolism of the shell as pilgrimage is very fitting. Keep your eye out for shells when you see baptismal fonts, as they are sometimes used to decorate the font, or may be used to hold the holy water poured over the one being baptized.
A Festive Celebration
The feast of St. James is a festive celebration, specifically in Santiago de Compostela, where they celebrate his life with a two-week long celebration concluded by fireworks.
Perhaps you could join in celebrating his life by lighting up a few sparklers with your family and friends!
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Susanna Parent is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She serves as Evangelization Manager for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the Office of Evangelization. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry program with the School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas. When she’s not reading and writing you can find her enjoying life with her new husband, brewing French press coffee in her kitchen, reading wine labels with friends in an effort to discover the perfect Pinot Noir and blogging about her travel adventures. You can find out more about her here.