Thursday, October 23, 2014

James the Who?

In the Episcopal Church, today is the feast of "James of Jerusalem, Brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Martyr, c. 62." That's a long title. I've spent all day trying to get strangers on the street to hold still long enough for me to wish them, "Happy feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, Brother..." They usually start walking away by the time I get to "James." But the long name is itself a subject of contention.

Let's start with "Jerusalem." He was, it seems, the Bishop of Jerusalem. In fact, that's the only part we seem to be able to agree on. According to Wikipedia, a " third century letter pseudographically ascribed[2] to the second century Clement of Rome" called James of Jerusalem the "bishop of bishops who rules Jerusalem."

As soon as we get to "Brother," everything comes off the rails. What does it mean to call someone Jesus' brother? What does that say about Mary? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary was a perpetual virgin--to the point that, through the intervention of God, her physical virginity remained intact both during the conception AND the birth of Jesus. According to the doctrine, she had no other children. That would mean that any "brothers" could be half-brothers (Joseph's children by a previous, presumably desceased, wife). Or they could be "brothers" in the metaphorical sense used elsewhere in the New Testament to denote something like "brethren." Others argue that, because there is no Aramaic word for "cousin," the gap between the spoken language of Jesus and the Greek of the gospel accounts leaves enough doubt that perhaps James is really a cousin.

Another approach to this conundrum entirely confuses "James the Bishop of Jerusalem" with "James the Less." The latter is known as one of the twelve disciples. "James the Greater" refers to James, son of Zebedee, brother of John. "James the Less" means James, son of Alphaeus. Jerome took this approach because it helped him preserve the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity, but, again, it seems like an unnecessary escape hatch. In the Episcopal Church, we have a separate feast for that James, which falls on May 1 (Saint Philip and Saint James).

Before you make any conclusion, go read the gospel lesson for this feast (Matt. 13:54-58). The Greek word is brothers. There is another Greek word for cousins, but it isn't used. In my mind, Mary's relationship with God--her availability as God's handmaiden--does not depend on her perpetual virginity. Yes, let's celebrate her lifelong faithfulness--the before, during, and after holiness--but let's do it without theologically stitching back together her hymen.

James is Jesus' brother. There's a whole wonderful, beautiful, complex theology of being Jesus' brother. What did it mean to grow up with him? What did it mean to have some of the same genetic material that he had? What does it mean to be a faithful follower and leader in the church despite living a life perpetually defined by what one is not?

I'm the oldest of three boys. I don't know what it's like to go to school and have a teacher call me someone's brother. I don't know what it's like to follow in the footsteps of someone more successful than I. But James did. And that's a holy life and a holy example.

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