July 28, 2021
Categorised in: Sermons
Mark 5. 21-end – Canon Dr. Richard Lindle
You are probably familiar with the wild flower ragwort, with its multiplicity of yellow daisy-like blooms, growing wild in hedgerows, in fields and at the side of roads. The botanical, Latin name for ragwort is senecio jacobaea, meaning roughly old man James, because it is usually in full bloom around St James’s Day, 25th July.
This service is the First Evensong for St James, whose day is normally 25th July, but this year is kept on 26th because today is Sunday.
Ragwort is an attractive flower, and the poet John Clare described it glowingly in 1831:
Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come and litter gold…
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright and glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
And seems but very shadows in thy sight.
But sadly, ragwort is also a tragic plant: for horses and cattle it can be fatally poisonous, particularly when the blooms are dying back. So, coinciding with St James’s Day, ragwort reminds us that James died a martyr for his faith. King Herod Agrippa had him killed by the sword in AD 44.
There are several Jameses in the New Testament, and the one we are recalling is James the Greater. He and his younger
brother John were the sons of Zebedee, and were among the first fishermen that Jesus recruited as disciples. He became one of Jesus’s inner circle with Peter and John, and was with Jesus at critical moments like Jesus’s transfiguration and his mental agony on the eve of his crucifixion.
But being in the inner circle seems to have gone to his and his brother’s heads, and at one stage they quietly petitioned Jesus to grant them privileged positions in his coming divine kingdom. At least, that’s what Mark’s gospel says. Matthew says it was their ambitious mother who made the request on their behalf. But Matthew used Mark’s gospel as one of his sources of material, so it’s quite likely that he amended the story to try and cover the tracks of two revered apostles.
Jesus’s response in any case was to James and John themselves, and he pointedly asked them if they were prepared to share his coming suffering. They said they were, and for James that proved to be his lot, killed by the sword, the first of the Twelve Apostles to be martyred for his faith.
There was once a St James’s church in Winchester. It was a Saxon church on the site of the present Catholic cemetery, just up the Romsey Road on the left. Go past St James’s Terrace with St James’s Dental Practice and past St James’s Tavern and later the long brick wall. Do go in sometime and relax there for a few minutes. And recall that, among those buried there are several victims of Protestant extremism in the 16th and 17th centuries. More victims for their faith, like St James himself.
There is a story in tradition that James had managed to fit in a preaching tour of Spain before he died. There’s no historical
backing for this. Nevertheless, the relics preserved in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain are said to be St James’s. And, since mediaeval times, thousands of pilgrims have made their way along the Camino, or Way of St James, to the cathedral each year – I among them with a friend a few years ago. St James is sometimes portrayed as a pilgrim himself, with staff and fisherman’s shell badge.
‘Santiago’ means ‘St James’ and ‘compostela’ refers to the certificate that pilgrims receive on arrival. Pilgrims in fact follow caminos from many different traditional directions. And a few years ago, I blessed a pilgrim here who was setting off along one of the longest traditional routes, all the way from Winchester to Santiago de Compostela, a feat on foot that was going to take him many months. Pilgrims complete the Way for all sorts of spiritual and apparently mundane reasons, as pilgrims from all over the world discover as they walk. But it is a sign of deep spiritual yearning in young and old that so many undertake the walk.
Whether St James went to Spain or not, and whether or not they are his bones in the shrine on the high screen there, one suspects that he would be very approving of the pilgrimages. Some of the modern pilgrims are undoubtedly already sharing, like James, in the suffering of Jesus through the disasters and mishaps of their lives, and that is why they have come. Perhaps all the pilgrims, whatever their stated motivation, are looking, consciously or unconsciously, to share with James some sort of experience of the transfiguration of our Lord, and find some certainty about the meaning of life, to capture a little of the glory of the universe and perhaps of God, in the beauty of the scenery and the
friendship of fellow pilgrims. It is certainly a very moving experience to arrive in Santiago de Compostela, after the travails of the journey.
So perhaps there is a pattern here for us all in our lives. Disaster strikes, loss occurs, loneliness besets us. James was with Jesus when, in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his likely crucifixion, Jesus knelt down, agonised over what was to come and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ But James has aalready, previously grasped something of the triumph of good over evil when he had experienced the strange but moving event of the Transfiguration. This was when he, with Peter and John, had seen Jesus in the new light of glory on a mountain top.
For us, experiences of pain and loss are almost inevitable, and can be terrible. James had experienced the Transfiguration. James had seen that his Lord was alongside us when we agonise and suffer. We can hope that it is the triumph of Jesus over evil and suffering that will buoy us up when we are in the throes of misery. And we must hope too that we can be genuinely alongside other people in their suffering, and quietly offer hope when it can be timely and sensitively offered. This is the great Christian hope, from Jesus and for James and for us.