St. James of Jerusalem (tr.) - October 24, 2017
As the oldest of three children, I never knew what it was like to have a teacher say, "Oh, you must be John's younger brother." I do remember hearing that happen to classmates and thinking it must be nice to have an identity that precedes you when you walk into a room. I also remember being surprised to hear a friend mumble under his breath, "I hate it when people call me Kristin's little brother." Since I never had to deal with it, it seems quaint and nice, but I can imagine that it must be exasperating always not only to be compared with an older sibling but to be defined by that relationship.
And then there's James of Jerusalem, whose feast we celebrate today. James the Brother of our Lord. James the Less. James the Just. James the Son of Alphaeus. Are all of those the same person? It depends on whom you ask and how important the perpetual virginity of Mary is in your theology of the Incarnation. There are several different ways to describe James, most of which either identify him as not being James the brother of John, one of the sons of Zebedee, or as being the brother of Jesus. What's it like to grow up as Jesus' little brother? Every teacher, every friend of your parents, every synagogue function, every wedding, every funeral, every first date, every social interaction of every kind must be filled with "How's your brother?" or "What's Jesus up to these days?" or "You're not at all like your older brother, are you?"
I don't blame James for resisting the call to follow Jesus for as long as he did. Of course, we don't know a lot about James and how he found a place in the Way, but, as the tradition interprets it, Paul lets us know in 1 Corinthians that James was one of the last to whom the resurrected Jesus revealed himself: "[Jesus] was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." I don't know exactly what that is supposed to imply, but I take it to mean that Jesus' brother was one of the last apostles to accept the truth of Jesus' identity as the Son of God. It doesn't say that exactly, but human nature confirms it.
What's so special about my brother? Only that he's the incarnate Son of God. Oh, that? You should have seen how he acted when no one else was around. What was it like growing up in the same family as Jesus? What do you think it was like? Who do you think got in trouble every time something went wrong?
It's hard to be in awe of someone we grew up with. It's hard to revere as holy someone we know as friend or sibling or neighbor. "Where did this rabbi get all this wisdom and these deeds of power? Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother called Mary? Aren't his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas people we know?" Jesus' response is telling: "Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house."
I don't know about you, but I grew up with Jesus. I've known him all my life. He was as much a part of my household as my two younger brothers. There's comfort in that familiarity, but I didn't discover the truth of who Jesus is until I moved away, found a new community, and met Jesus as an outsider. What about you? Is there a moment in your life when you discovered Jesus? Maybe you didn't grow up with him like I did and met him for the first time later in life. Or maybe you grew up taking Jesus for granted and didn't learn the depth of his identity until much later. Or maybe you, like me, are still looking for a truth that reflects not only the Jesus whom you have always known but also the Jesus who comes and surprises you as much as he surprised Paul or James or any of the apostles. May our knowledge of Jesus flow from a lifetime relationship with him, yet may each encounter be as fresh as love at first sight.