St. James, known as the Greater, in order to distinguish him from the other Apostle St. James, our Lord's cousin, was St. John's brother. With Peter and John he was one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration, as later he was also of the agony in the garden. He was beheaded in Jerusalem in 42 or 43 on the orders of Herod Agrippa. Since the ninth century Spain has claimed the honour of possessing his relics, though it must be said that actual proof is far less in evidence than the devotion of the faithful. The pilgrimage to St. James of Compostella in the Middle Ages attracted immense crowds; after the pilgrimage to Rome or the Holy Land, it was the most famous and the most frequented pilgrimage in Christendom. The pilgrim paths to Compostella form a network over Europe; they are dotted with pilgrims' hospices and chapels, some of which still exist. St. James is mentioned in the Roman Canon of the Mass.
In Spain, he is called El Senor Santiago, the patron saint of horsemen and soldiers, and his great shrine at Santiago de Compostela in that country has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. He is one of those that Jesus called Boanerges, "son of thunder," the brother of John the Evangelist and the son of Zebedee the fisherman from Galilee.
St. James the Greater and his brother John were apparently partners with those other two brothers, Peter and Andrew, and lived in Bethsaida, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. How and where James first met Jesus, we do not know; but there is an old legend that makes Salome, his mother, a sister of Mary, and if this were the case, he would have known Jesus from childhood.
Along with Peter and his brother John, James was part of the inner circle of Jesus, who witnessed the Transfiguration, were witnesses to certain of His miracles, like the raising of the daughter of Jairus, and accompanied Him to the Garden of Gethsemani. Like his brother, he was active in the work of evangelization after the death of Jesus, and one legend, very unlikely, even has him going to Spain after Jesus' resurrection.
His prominence and his presence in Jerusalem must have been well known, for scarcely a dozen years after the Resurrection, he became involved in the political maneuverings of the day and was arrested and executed by King Herod Agrippa. This was followed by the arrest of Peter also, so his death must have been part of a purge of Christian leaders by Agrippa, who saw the new Christian movement as a threat to Judaism.
Jesus had foretold this kind of fate when He prophesied that James and his brother John would "drink of the same chalice" of suffering as Himself. The two brothers had asked to be seated at the right of Jesus and at His left in His kingdom, and Jesus told them that they would be with Him in a far different way than they expected.
James's death is the only biblical record we have of the death of one of the Apostles, and he was the first of that chosen band to give his life for his Master.
Excerpted from The One Year Book of Saints by Rev. Clifford Stevens.
Patron: Against arthritis; against rheumatism; Antigua, Guatemala; apothecaries; blacksmiths; Chile; Compostela, Spain; druggists; equestrians; furriers; Galicia, Spain; Guatemala; horsemen; knights; laborers; Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina; Nicaragua; pharmacists; pilgrims; Pistoia, Italy; rheumatoid sufferers; riders; soldiers; Spain; Spanish conquistadors; tanners; veterinarians.
Symbols: Cockle shell; dark-bearded man holding a book; dark-bearded man holding a scroll; dark-bearded man holding a sword; dark-bearded man with a floppy pilgrim's hat, long staff, water bottle, and scallop shell; elderly, bearded man wearing a hat with a scallop shell; key; man with shells around him; mounted on horseback, trampling a Moor; pilgrim with wallet and staff; pilgrim's hat; pilgrim's staff; scallop shell; sword.