Feast of St. James the Just
Today we celebrate the Feast of James, bearer of many monikers: (younger) brother of Jesus, cousin of Jesus (if he was actually the son of Mary’s sister…), step-brother or half-brother of Jesus (if his was the son of Joseph from a previous marriage), brother of God (Adelphotheos), and/or finally, simply, “the Just.” I wonder if his "justice" might ultimately flow from the sheer ambiguity of his familiality/familiarity.
First, he is identified as a brother by the most straightforward reading of our gospel passage from Matthew (13:55) (paralleled in Mark 6:3): “are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” Here James, along with other brothers and sisters (who unfortunately are not specifically named-- how intriguing would it be if his sisters were?) is being used to familiarize and undermine Jesus as one who had any special authority or identity. Jesus is being taken down a notch: simply a brother among siblings, a son among children. You know him, I know him, we changed his diapers, we cleaned up his messes-- he’s simply a person, nothing special, certainly not a prophet of any kind. All of which goes to highlight for us, readers and hearers of Matthew, how the teeth of the prophetic saw, as it were, cannot bite the hometown wood.
In this moment of reference— this familiar/familial undermining of Jesus’ prophetic character—James invites us to consider how often our own apparent familiarity occludes key features of who we are and who we are called to be before God (we know who s/he is, he/she can’t possibly be x or up to y). How often have we been so read by others? How often might we have so read ourselves?
But even as James is used to undermine Jesus’ uniqueness, James’s own uniqueness, his own proximity to his illustrious brother, gets called into question. Particularly in light of the claim of Jesus’ first-born status, coupled with the later idea of Mary’s ever-virginity, James’ brotherhood, the quality of his familiarity, becomes highly complex and contested. Perhaps he was a half-brother, step-brother, or cousin, as different early Christian sources (such as Origen, Jerome and the Protoevangelium of James) and contemporary commentaries have speculated? His familiarity is perhaps blood-tied, perhaps not. Like Mary, he begins to embody the question How can this be?
In Galatians 1:19, Paul speaks of visiting Peter and James “the Lord’s brother” in Jerusalem—clearly a passage in which leadership and familial status are linked, and are further located specifically in the community at Jerusalem. By contrast, our passage from 1 Corinthians 15 locates James’s spiritual authority in a resurrection visitation, an experience that reflects not any unique familial proximity—indeed, his vision comes only after “more than five hundred brothers and sisters” – but rather his personal relationship, his experience of the risen One.
In many ways, this marked ambiguity in James’s familial status is reminiscent of the relationship of Gentiles to the broader people of Israel —the very dispute James is known for having helped adjudicate. In Acts 15 he offers commentary on the controversy over whether converts to the nascent followers of Jesus had to be circumcised, had to follow the Law of Moses to the letter. James’ judgment that “we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19) seems to have contributed to his reputation as “the Just”.
But it didn’t end there. The early Christian chronicler Hegesippus (c. 110-180 C.E.) has James intervening in this continuing controversy to the most dramatic of degrees. Already, James's just reputation was signaled by the persistent intensity of his prayer: he apparently spent so much time kneeling on the floor of the Temple in adoration and prayer, “begging forgiveness for the people… that the skin of his knees became horny like that of a camel's.” As more and more Gentiles were drawn into the emerging community of Jesus followers, leaders in Jerusalem begged him to “restrain” the population. Invoking his reputation for justice, they asked him to preach against this crowd, to actually turn them from the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. And when, having been lead to the pinnacle of the Temple, he refused and instead preached just the opposite, this leadership hurled him to his death. “The just man himself,” they claimed, was “in error”.
How should we read James’s familiality/familiarity? How might we comprehend his justice?
Even contemporary archeology has gotten into the act. You may or may not recall, about ten years ago a first century ossuary was found with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Several History/Discovery/etc. Channel episodes later, it seems that the antiquities dealer who found it probably forged it—or at least, the several in-process inscriptions discovered in the raid of his home workshop suggested as much. To press this Jamesian ambiguity yet further, the antiquities dealer was found not guilty of forgery.
Poor James: brother, authenticator, whistle-blower, horned-knee worshiper, just adjudicator, forever misread.
In the end, as I read him, James invites us into a series of questions: how might our own familiarity – our living, abiding connection to one another – open out onto a trajectory much less clear, much more mysterious? How might we learn to "read" one another, and ourselves, with such expansive humility? How might James further aid us in recasting the idea of the familial belonging, indeed of that oft- misused moniker of “family”, justly subject to early Christian and contemporary critique alike? How might we view "familiality" as an icon not so much of what we think we know (the familiar) in one another, but of what we don’t know, a window onto the mystery of our divine adoption, our engrafting into the body of Christ, whose membership necessarily takes us into terrain as familiar and strange as the air we breath?
For the opportunity to ponder and live into these questions, brother James, I thank you.