Friday, July 22, 2022

The Feast of the Thunderous Heel-Grabber

School of Valencia, Circle of Los Hernandos, “Saint James the Great at the Battle of Clavijo” (Santiago Matamoros), 16th century

The Church feeds her flock in different ways throughout the year; in the summer, she excels in the presentation of her Saints, who shine like the stars on a warm night. On July 25, the Church honors an Apostle whose cult is rich in custom and lore.

Saint James the Greater
Saint James was the son of Zebedee and Mary Salome and the brother of Saint John the Apostle, both of whom our Lord nicknamed “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3, 17). James is also given the epithet “the Greater” to distinguish him from “James the Lesser” or Younger, another Apostle who was Our Lord’s cousin. “James,” which is the equivalent of the Hebrew Jacob (“Usurper” or “Heel-Grabber”), was a popular Jewish name in Palestine at the time.
James was probably introduced to Our Lord by his brother John; like Saint Peter and his brother Saint Andrew, the four had been fishermen in Galilee. Along with Saints Peter and John, James was part of a special group. Only these three “Princes of the Apostles,” as Saint John Chrysostom calls them, witnessed the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the miracle of raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and Christ’s Agony in the Garden.
James’ nickname as a Son of Thunder was well-deserved. When some Samaritans denied Jesus access to their village, James and John asked: “Lord, wouldst thou have us bid fire come down from heaven, and consume them?” Our Lord had to remind them that the Son of Man came to save men’s lives rather than destroy them (Luke 9, 53-56).
The Acts of the Apostles lists Saint James as the first of the Apostles to be martyred. Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, curried favor with the Jews by persecuting Christians, who were rapidly increasing in number. For the Passover of A.D. 44, Herod had James slain with the sword (Acts 12, 1-2). The New Testament does not state why, but we may speculate that James’ prominence in the Christian community at Jerusalem and the vehemence of his zeal for the Gospel made him an ideal scapegoat. But calling James vehement is not to say that he still harbored a thunderous desire to rain down lightning upon his foes. An early tradition states that when the man who accused Saint James before the tribunal saw how bravely the Apostle accepted his sentence, he immediately converted and asked for his forgiveness. James did so gladly with the Kiss of Peace, and both died as martyrs.
Santiago de Compostela
Although Saint James was martyred in the spring, his feast day falls on July 25, the date on which his remains were allegedly transferred to Spain. According to legend, he preached the Gospel on the Iberian peninsula shortly after the Ascension and then returned to the Holy Land. After he was martyred in Jerusalem, his body was taken to Jaffa, where a marvelous stone ship transported it back to Spain. His disciples asked a deceitful pagan queen for a place to bury the body; they buried it at the current site of Compostela after foiling a number of her traps. The body was rediscovered in the ninth century when a star led the local bishop to its location. Hence the name Santiago de Compostela: “Santiago” is a Galician development of the vulgar Latin Sanctu Jacobu, and “Compostela” is a corruption of Campus Stellae, or Field of the Star.
Whatever the truth behind these tales, one thing is certain: Santiago de Compostela is an extremely significant pilgrimage site, third only in popularity during the Middle Ages to Rome and the Holy Land. To this day, the pilgrimage to Santiago, called El Camino or The Way, is piously made by hundreds of thousands each year, and the Pope alone still reserves the right to dispense someone of his vow to make the pilgrimage. ¡Buen Camino! is what the Spanish say to Compostela pilgrims, who traditionally wear on their chests scalloped shells, the symbol of Saint James.
And it would be difficult to underestimate the significance of devotion to Saint James on the history of Spain. During the Reconquista, when the Muslims were driven out after centuries of occupation, pious Spaniards prayed to Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moorslayer, who helped the Christians defeat the Moors at the legendary Battle of Clavijo. The Spanish battle cry during these wars was Santiago! or ¡Santiago y cierra, España!, which means “Saint James and close in on ’em, Spain!” The same words were used by Cortez and his soldiers when they battled the Aztecs in the jungles of Mexico.
Patronage and Customs
Saint James is the patron saint of Spain, Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and a number of cities in Mexico and the Philippines, but his popularity extends beyond the borders of Hispania and her former colonies. Many French wines from the region of Burgundy bear the name Saint-Jacques because of the fossilized scallops found in the vineyards’ rich limestone deposits. James’ symbolic tie to shells also explain why he is the patron saint of oyster-fishing, and it is probably his association with Conquistadors that accounts for his patronage not only of soldiers, sailors, and equestrians, but of just about anyone who equips or helps a mounted cavalry, such as veterinarians, blacksmiths, and tanners. You might also think that Saint James is invoked against arthritis and rheumatism because the Conquistadors got stiff in the saddle after long hours of aggressive colonizing, but the more plausible answer is his miraculous cure of a paralytic as he was being led to his martyrdom.
In parts of England and France, Saint James’ Day was the occasion for various harvest thanksgivings, especially with respect to the bounty of the orchard. In the Middle Ages, it was common in certain dioceses to bless walnuts, apples, and other nuts and fruits.
Catedral de Santiago de Compostela
The Scallop
As we have already noted, the primary symbol of the Camino de Santiago is a scallop shell: in fact, its scientific name is Pecten Jacobaeus, James’s scallop (and we might as well add that the French is Coquille Saint Jacques, and the German is Jakobsmuscheln or James’ mussels). Images of scallops line the Camino pointing the way, pilgrims wear a scallop en route to signify their status, or they collect a scallop once they reach Santiago to signify their successful completion of the journey. In the Middle Ages, successful Santiago pilgrims also had scallops carved on their sarcophagi.
Las vieiras guían el Camino de Santiago
Explanations about the association of the scallop with the Saint abound. Some say that it is simply because pilgrims use scallop shells to drink water from streams, although this does not explain why it is specific to El Camino. A more likely explanation is that pilgrims who reached Santiago continued their journey to the seashore of Finisterre (“end of the earth” or “land’s end”) to collect a scallop as proof of their pilgrimage. Later, vendors collected the shells and sold them at Santiago itself. Some legends try to tie the scallop to James himself. One has him performing a miraculous healing with a scallop shell, another that his remains were discovered covered in scallop shells. In any event, the contours of the scallop make it an apt symbol for Santiago: the converging ridges on the back of the shell are like the many different pilgrimage routes in Europe that lead to the tomb of St. James.
One thing is certain: other mollusks get to share in the glory of the scallop on this day. There is an old English proverb: “He who eats oysters on St James’s Day shall not lack for money.”

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