James and John were sons of Salome and Zebedee, the gospels say, and at the Sea of Galilee Jesus called them to follow him. They were fishermen, relatives of Jesus. The gospels mention James first; he must have been the oldest. They’re described as quick-tempered and ambitious but they were part of the innermost circle of Jesus’ companions. They heard him teach and saw him transfigured in glory and then shaking with fear in the garden of Gethsemane before his death.
Our first reading at Mass for the Feast of St. James reminds us that “we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians, 4,7) A good description of James and his brother John. They’re earthen vessels indeed, as our gospel describes them, using their mother Salome as their intermediary, looking for a big place in the kingdom they hope Jesus will bring. Earthen vessels break easily.
Jesus asks them if they can drink from the chalice that he will drink from, the chalice of serving others, no matter what the cost. “We can,” they say.
His brother John and his mother Salome stood near the cross of Jesus, but James fled immediately when Jesus was seized in the garden. Yet, God’s “surpassing power” filled him with treasures of faith, and James drank from the cup he was asked him to drink.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, James spoke bravely about Jesus risen from the dead to the people of Jerusalem and to the Jews visiting the Holy City from all parts of the world at Pentecost. He became a leader of the Jerusalem church.
In the year 41, Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, became king of Judea and ruled in Jerusalem. Educated in Rome, he knew how to favor the emperors of his time and he also knew how to please the powerful Jewish ruling class that had a key role in his kingdom.
When the Jewish Sanhedrin accused Christians of threatening the peace of Jerusalem, Herod sent his soldiers to seize James, the son of Salome and Zebedee, and had him executed by the sword. Strike the shepherd, Herod reasoned, and the sheep will scatter.
James was the first of the apostles to die a martyr’s death. “My cup indeed you will drink,” Jesus promised, and his promise came true.