Saint James the Apostle: Close Friend Of Christ

The end of the second chapter of the Gospel of John tells us that, because of the miracles he performed, many people believed in the name of Jesus when he was in Jerusalem during the Passover feast. However, the narrative goes on to disclose that “Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn. 2: 23-25).

The Gospels themselves are replete with stories of Jesus distancing himself from particular people and groups of people. He speaks in parables in order to hide the true meaning of his sayings from those whose “…heart has grown dull and [whose] ears are heavy of hearing…” (Mt. 13:15a). And yet, in contrast, he explains the parables and other mysteries of the kingdom of God to his disciples (Mt. 13:18-23).

Over and over again he rejects many of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes who are animated by self-righteousness, greed, and the pursuit of power and prestige. Christ can also hold at arm’s length the common man in the large crowd who is following him not for the words of life, but because he hopes to get his fill of the loaves and fishes (Jn. 6:26).

One common feature of all these people is that, in their relationship to God, the Most High is a means- to-an-end and not an end-in-himself. Their relationship to him is utilitarian: he is their meal ticket, “fire insurance” or perhaps a way to cultivate their own wealth (e.g., the cleansing of the temple), prestige and power- a Celestial Santa Claus who makes their dreams come true and never asks them to carry a cross.

With a smaller group of people, Christ pursues intimacy and tries to pull them close to himself, much like a groom to a bride or a shepherd to a lamb. We see this in his calling of the Twelve and in his special relationship to his inner circle within the Twelve: Peter, James and John.

A saint like James the Apostle provides us with many insights in answering the question, “What kind of person does Christ seek intimate communion with?” Certainly not someone who is already a saint or close to perfection.

The Holy Writ reveals that James had problems with both vainglory and vindictiveness. He asked Christ that he and his brother John would be seated on his left and right when Christ came into the full glory of his kingdom (Mk. 10:35-37) and he wanted to call fire down on a village of Samaritans when they did not receive Christ (Lk. 9:51-56).

This should be encouraging to the practicing Catholic who is fighting various sins in his or her life and wonders if God is even interested in intimacy with them or using them to advance his kingdom. What God is looking for most of all is what Fr. Jacques Philippe calls “good faith.”

Put simply: Christ is not only calling saints to intimacy with him but also those who want to be saints. We get a window of insight into James’ heart when Jesus recognizes his great zeal by calling both he and John “sons of thunder.”

This single-minded commitment is exemplified in these men leaving everything to follow Christ. One can imagine someone outside of the Twelve, who perhaps is undecided about who Jesus really is, saying, “Those twelve guys follow him around like he is God or something.” Go figure.

At a low point in Christ’s earthly ministry, when many of his followers had left him because of his hard sayings concerning his Flesh and Blood (Jn. 6:66-69), James and the other disciples stood with Peter when he said “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Unlike the people and groups Christ rejects or holds at arm’s length, James relationship to Christ is more of an end-in-itself rather than a means-to-an-end, though this virtue is not fully formed yet as evidenced by James’ battle with vainglory. St. Ambrose recognized it as one of the most difficult sins to overcome: “Ambition often makes criminals of those whom no vice would delight, whom no lust could move, whom no avarice could deceive.”

And yet what caused Christ to pull James close to himself- just like he allowed his brother John to put his head on his bosom- was a growing tendency to pursue One Thing: intimacy with Christ himself. This is one of the hallmarks of the holy ones throughout Scripture:

Jeremiah said that “The LORD is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him” (Lam. 3:24). King David only wanted one thing: “…that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27: 4b).

Jesus told Martha that only one thing was needful and Mary had chosen it: to sit at his feet, listen to his voice and bask in his presence (Lk. 10:38-42). The apostle Paul counted all things as refuse except for an intimate knowledge of Christ characterized by knowing him in the power of his resurrection, fellowship of his suffering and identification with his death (Phil. 3:10).

This was the great object lesson when Christ took Peter, James and John up alone to a high mountain and was transfigured before them (Mt. 17:1-8). Elijah and Moses also appeared and were talking to Jesus.

Peter missed the point and wanted to build three booths in honor of each luminary as the Jews did yearly at the Feast of Booths (Lev. 23: 39-43). However, at the end of the story, “when they lifted their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”

This episode makes it clear to Christ’s inner circle that the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms all point to, and are fulfilled in Christ. Their devotion and adoration needed to be directed to him and no one else.

For the practicing Catholic, the message is also clear: all the particulars of the Catholic faith- Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium, the sacramental life, devotion to Mary, spiritual disciplines, liturgical life, papal office and ecclesiastical hierarchy, etc.- all point to and are fulfilled in Christ. This is why the Eucharist is called the Source and Summit of our faith.

As practicing Catholics, we must not lose the Forest (Christ) in looking at all the individual trees (the particulars of our faith). The truth of our mission is captured in the title of a book by Soren Kierkegaard: Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.

This epiphany was growing in James’ heart and that’s one reason why Christ made him a part of his inner circle. The other eleven, save Judas Iscariot, were going through a similar transformation and that’s one of the reasons why Christ said, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:15).

We must also remember that in both his earthly ministry and heavenly dominion, Christ is the Bridegroom who is searching for a pure Bride who has not been beguiled away from this pure and simple devotion to him (II Cor. 11:1-3). She, the Bride, is not marrying him for his money, fame, or power; she is marrying him for him.

Years ago I once spent a morning with a man who is now high up in the Catholic Church and left with the distinct impression that he was more of a politician than a priest. How seductive the levers of power and how timely I later found the words of St. Ambrose on the snare of selfish ambition!

In being the first apostle to suffer martyrdom at the command of King Agrippa I in A.D. 44, Saint James demonstrated his transformation. You can’t be a martyr and vainglorious and vindictive at the same time: the vainglorious seek to save their skin; the vindictive seek revenge on their persecutors.

In meditating on how this profound change took place, it’s obvious that living with Christ had a profound effect on James. Even more than what was taught by Jesus, it was what was caught.

How could James remain wedded to selfish ambition when he saw Christ wash the disciples’ feet? How could he remain vindictive with his persecutors when he knew that Christ asked his Father to forgive his executioners “for they know not what they do?”

The practicing Catholic can also see Christ regularly with the eyes of faith and be guided by his example: in the Eucharist at Mass and in the priest who stands in Christ’s stead; in the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and in all seven Sacraments; in the Gospel stories when he prays the Rosary and in other multitudinous devotions; in Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium and in the faces of “the least of these my brethren.”

After Pentecost the Spirit of Christ has filled our hearts and continues to bring the reality and revelation of Christ to us (Jn. 16:12-15). The same Eternal Spirit that led Christ to offer himself on Calvary (Heb. 9:14) now lives in the believer and is leading him to die daily to the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.

For James this daily martyrdom culminated in a literal one. It is common in Catholic tradition (e.g., St. Teresa of Avila) to hear the idea that Christ shares more of his cross with his closest friends.

More than one saint has asserted that adversity is a gift of God and that those nearest to the heart of Christ will endure the greatest trials. He holds his choice servants so close they feel his nails and thorns.

image: By HaSt [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

Avatar photo


Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is a contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of "Letters from Fawn Creek," a volume of spiritual direction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. A self-confessed “mediocre fisherman,” he is known to wet a line now and then in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of northeast Washington.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage