When I first moved to Texas, I was baffled by the religious candles for sale in the supermarkets. Somewhere between the paper towels and the batteries, every store had a small section of tall candles with pictures of Jesus or a saint pasted to the outside of the glass. Not yet Catholic, I found this practice strange enough. But I was also perplexed by the selection of images: Jesus holding a heart, St. Michael slaying a dragon, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and …Saint Jude.
Mentioned only in passing in the gospels, Jude doesn’t exactly play a prominent role in the Bible. We know he was also called Thaddeus and was the brother of James the Lesser. We also know Jude was one of the 12 disciples. Besides this, we have few other biographical details. He did write his own book but it’s only 25 verses long. I couldn’t figure out why St. Jude should get a candle over Sts. Peter, Paul, or John.
Once I became Catholic, I understood that candles were a kind of visual aid for prayers and a way to “extend” the prayer by leaving the light burning long after the words have ceased. Still, I didn’t get why St. Jude was so popular. It wasn’t until someone explained that Jude was the “patron saint of lost causes” that I understood his prominence in the candle market. For people who need prayers for a seemingly desperate situation, St. Jude is the point man. But why is this?
Well, the practice goes back a long time. After Christ’s ascension, Jude traveled throughout the Middle-East. Tradition holds that he made it as far east as Persia and as far west as Libya. He was martyred in Syria and killed with an axe. His bones were moved to Rome where they now rest in the left transept of St. Peter’s Basilica. Many pilgrims who visited St. Jude’s shrine reported miracles and powerful intercession for seemingly unanswerable prayers. This apparently led to a strong association between St. Jude and lost causes. St. Bridget of Sweden even reportedly received a vision from God calling Jude, “The Patron Saint of the Impossible.”
Of course, many saints performed miracles during their lifetimes. And most are associated with incredible intercession after death. So, if other saints also interceded to secure help for the desperate, why is Jude singled out for this role? Part of the answer may be his short book in the New Testament.
The Epistle of Jude is a short book packed with historical examples of the faithful and the faithless; the ancient Israelites, Sodom and Gomorrah, Balaam, and a curious reference to Michael the Archangel and Satan fighting over the body of Moses. Jude also describes the difficult situation of the early Christians, beset by heretics who were like “wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam.” Amidst all this, the message is one of encouragement: “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life.” (Jude 20-21) With all of the dangers Jude describes, to stand firm would take an extraordinary faith – the very faith repeatedly described by Jesus in the Gospels.
Jude, as one of the 12, would have often heard Jesus describe the importance of faith. Faith that could move mountains. Faith that would lead to miraculous healings. Jude would have seen the results of that kind of faith firsthand. He also would have heard Jesus bemoan the faithlessness of those around him, warning them of the consequences. So it is no wonder that Jude mirrors these ideas in his Epistle, exhorting the early Christians to remain faithful and persevere so as to be able to stand in the presence of God, “blameless with great joy.”
Still, this kind of faith isn’t easy for most of us. Fortunately, Jesus had pity on those “of little faith.” Jude emulates this as well, instructing his readers to “have mercy on some who are doubting.” Perhaps this is what makes St. Jude such a welcoming intercessor; his powerful faith coupled with mercy for those of us who lack such faith. Hopefully, seeing St. Jude tucked away on the home goods aisle will remind us that Christ is the one who can “keep you from stumbling” and bring us to glory. Christ is the one who can cure every illness and raise the dead. And, with Jesus, there really is no such thing as a lost or impossible cause.