Charlie Barton • July 22, 2012 • Saint James, Monkton
Today is our "Patronal Feast Day," the Sunday we have set aside for the celebration of the saint after whom our Church is named, that is, St. James the Apostle. What do I mean by "the Sunday set aside?" Well the actual feast day for St. James is July the 25th, this coming Wednesday.
Feast days are set by date, and as the years roll by, that date falls on a different day of the week each year. Some churches have Eucharist every day. So they simply celebrate Feast Days on their appointed dates. Other churches, like ours, do not have daily Eucharist and so the Feast Day is transferred. That means that the Sunday nearest to the date becomes the day on which the feast takes place.
We do not have to spend a great deal of time or energy deciding on which Sunday we will have our Patronal Feast, or when Easter will take place, or whether a deacon can celebrate the Eucharist. Episcopalians are a very orderly lot. Wondering which hymns work well for Advent? "We have an app for that" - seriously.
Do we have all these prescribed ways of doing things because we are a rigid, pharisaical people? Isn't one way as good as another? No and yes. No, we are not rigid we are realistic. The order we have in our calendar and our prayer book is a response to the violence of the Reformation and the deep destructive power of people's unbounded passions. God doesn't need feast days, prayer books or guiding rubrics. We do. Without order we become distracted and do things we ought not to have done while leaving undone those things that would have been better to do.
But the tension is in remembering why we have chosen to have an ordered faith - for without reflection we can come to worship the order rather than the Christ. Order is a means to focus our faith, not a substitute for it. And yes, there are hundreds of ways that things can be done. One way is not necessarily inherently better than another, but if we do not establish some fixed points beyond our own egos, everything is up for grabs and we will spend all our time arguing over the silliest stuff - or killing each other over it - as they were doing in the 1400's... even as the first prayer books were being written.
The order in our calendar, our prayer book and our system of church governance are meant to free us to focus on Christ and that to which he calls us. As is true in everything from athletics to practicing a life of faith, some folks are more focused, more conscious, about the endeavor in which they are involved.
In the life of faith we call such focused, Christ centered, people Saints. The Book, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, explains it this way:
What we celebrate in the lives of the saints is the presence of Christ expressing itself in and through particular lives lived in the midst of specific historical circumstances. In the saints we are not dealing primarily with absolutes of perfection but human lives, in all their diversity, open to the motions of the Holy Spirit. Many a holy life, when carefully examined, will reveal flaws or a bias of a particular moment in history or ecclesial perspective: attitudes toward those outside the Church, assumptions about gender, understandings of the world may appear to be defective and wrong. And what in one age, was taken as virtue may at another time seem misguided. It should encourage us to realize that the saints, like us, are first and foremost redeemed sinners in whom the risen Christ's words to St. Paul come to fulfillment, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
So on this transferred feast day we remember James - a human being through who the light of Christ shone. James was not an ethereal, disconnected ascetic as we might assume if we only looked at icons to come to know him. From the Gospel we know that James was a fisherman with a temper who had a brother, John, of an equally passionate nature.1 These are the two whose response to the inhospitality of a Samaritan village was to suggest to Jesus that they should "call down fire from heaven" upon the offenders. That's not what many would consider very saintly behavior. But saints are not perfect people. They are instead flawed lens through which the light of God chose to shine brightly. Saints are meant to cause us to look at the light, not to reverence the window.
Perhaps we think of saints as gentle and meek - with every saint a Francis, so peaceful that birds would come and eat from their hand. But James and John were not meek. They were ambitious. They wanted thrones and power in Jesus' Kingdom. James and John wanted to rise and to rule from Jesus' right and left hands. Like the prodigal son who asked for his inheritance while his father was still alive, James and John in their own ambition and their ignorance were basically asking Jesus to hurry up and die. Is this the compassion and holiness we imagine when we speak the word "saint"?
And yet, James was one of but three disciples that Jesus took with him to the Mount of the Transfiguration. James saw Moses and Elijah and Jesus filled with light and presaging the coming of God's Kingdom. James was in the small room when Jesus bent down and healed Peter's mother-in-law. James had been asked to come along and was a witness when Jesus raised the synagogue leader's daughter from the dead. And although they could not remain awake, James John and Peter were called aside to watch and pray with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before His death. Four times James was called out from the crowd and asked to come closer - not to mount a throne but to experience the presence of the Christ.
Jesus meets us where we are unrepentant sinners, or saints in the making. Jesus gathers everyone who will come to him, from social outcasts like Levi - a tax collector who extorted money from his neighbors - to James and John who were from a higher social level than the average fisherman. James' and John's father, Zebedee, could afford hired servants, and John had appears to have had connections with the high priest in Jerusalem. They were not at the bottom of the heap.
But earthly connections did not save their earthly lives. The cup that Jesus offered when asked for a throne came first to James. In about 42 AD, James was beheaded. James was the first of all the disciples to suffer martyrdom, and the only one of the Twelve whose death is recorded in the New Testament.
Remember what I said about the light of God shining through the saints? We can also see the darkness at work in the world if we notice that it was King Herod Agrippa I, who ordered James to be beheaded. Herod Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great - the Herod who tried to kill the infant Jesus. And Herod Agrippa was also the nephew of Herod Antipas - the Herod who killed John the Baptist and examined Jesus on Good Friday. The whole family was full of darkness - filling them and spreading out.
Fishermen and kings, priests and parishioners, sinners and saints - all of us are people with potential to be an open window through which the darkness comes or a greater light shines. The light is coming into world. The darkness will not overcome it.
In spite of our failings and our weaknesses God wants to shine through us. Because of our need to see some sign God has given us the saints and Christ has come to dwell among us. Lord, give us strength to open wide the window of our souls and let you in. So that your light may shine in us and through us so that your life and the lives of the saints may illuminate our way. AMEN.
1 The biographical information on James is based on James Keifer's work. Keifer writes the biographies of the saints which may be seen on this Morning Prayer site