“He who saves one life, saves the whole world”: A Reflection for Saint James Day
Today, July 25, 2017, is the Feast of Saint James. To celebrate, our longtime board member and enthusiastic CMMB supporter, Desmond FitzGerald, wrote the following reflection.
Who Was Saint James?
James, the son of Zebedee, was one of the original apostles of Jesus, together with his brother John. He is traditionally considered the first to have been martyred. The Synoptic Gospels describe James and John as fishermen in partnership with their father, who was sufficiently prosperous to have hired servants and be acquainted with the High Priest. James had a wife and four children when he and his brother were called by Jesus to become “fishers of men.” James gave up all of this – all he had – to follow Jesus.
James was known for his volatile temperament and not reported to have had exceptional gifts as a speaker or teacher. Little is known about his activities as an apostle. Tradition dating from the early Middle Ages has him preaching the Gospel in Spain, and indeed he eventually became the patron saint of Spain, although most scholars do not believe that he ever reached the Iberian peninsula. It was dangerous to be a Christian in those early days, and James showed the considerable courage and commitment necessary to follow Jesus. He was beheaded in 44AD by Herod Agrippa, grandson of King Herod. His remains are enshrined in Compostela, which became one of the most famous pilgrimage destinations in the world, beginning in the 9th Century.
Let’s reflect together on this man’s life. James was an illiterate Palestinian fisherman of modest gifts, and yet here we are, thinking and writing about him almost 2,000 years after his death! This fact alone must tell us something: James’ encounter with Jesus transformed this otherwise ordinary man, and gave a new, powerful and profound meaning to his life.
Even though his relationship to Jesus did not suddenly make him brilliant, he became “an instrument of God’s will.” James’ story suggests that despite our limitations, we, too, have the potential to become instruments of God’s will. It is easy to feel completely helpless in the face of all the overwhelming problems of the world. What can any ordinary person do to help? At these moments, I draw strength from a profound epigram from the Babylonian Talmud:
“He who saves one life, saves the whole world.”
This is a powerful message of hope. We never know how, or where, or when we may be called to serve – how or when we may have an opportunity to become instruments of God’s will. We can recognize our own ordinariness in James, and be reminded that we, like him, must be open and responsive to opportunities to serve God, trusting that He can make the results of our efforts extraordinary.
Aspects of the story of St. James may date from a time of uncritical piety, and even if the legends surrounding his life were intended to promote religious tourism in northern Spain, or to fund the architectural ambitions of a local bishop, even if the relics at Compostela were goat’s bones, the spiritual core – the deeper meaning – of St. James’ story remains vital and valid, energizing and full of relevance for us today. Literally millions of people from all over Europe made the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) pilgrimage over these past 1,000+ years and thousands continue to each year. Although not every pilgrim was necessarily motivated by piety, millions inspired by St. James had transformative experiences, walking for many weeks across the beautiful empty countryside of northern Spain. That was certainly my experience.
At CMMB, we are keenly aware that the problems of the world are many, and immense, while the resources to address them are few. But we firmly believe that even a small number of committed individuals, people of faith and action, exemplified by our team and our wonderful volunteers, can make a huge positive difference in so many lives. St. James’ example continues to inspire us.