Opening the Ulcer to Apply the Medicine.
Lessons from the Proper, according to the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite:
II Corinthians 4: 7-15.
Psalm 126: 1-6.
Matthew 20: 20-28.
The Feast of the Blessed Apostle James the Greater.
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3:22 PM 7/25/2014 — Let us begin by reviewing what we know about the Blessed Apostle James from the Holy Gospels:
James, son of Zebedee and brother of the Apostle John, was a Galilean. He and his brother were among the first Apostles to be called, and we are well familiar with the account of how they abruptly left their father and his nets to follow our Lord. James was one of three apostles who seemed to be special favorites of our Lord, as evidenced by the fact that he was among the three that Jesus permitted to witness his Transfiguration, and was blessed to be with our Lord when he prayed on the Mount of Olives.
But there's a lot about this Apostle that we know from other sources, information not found in the Gospels: after our Lord's ascension into heaven, he preached the Divinity of Christ in Samaria, bringing many to the faith. After that, he went to Spain and made converts to Christ, including seven men who were later made bishops by St. Peter and sent back to Spain, and it's from these seven men that Spain was received into the family of the Church; so, James is regarded as the spiritual father of Spain. After all this he returned to Jerusalem at the time that Herod had been made king by the emperor Claudius, and, to win favor with the Jews, condemned James to be beheaded. When the man who brought him to the tribunal saw how courageously he went to his death, he at once professed himself a Christian also. As they both were being led to execution, this man begged the forgiveness of James, and it is said that, along the way, James stopped to heal a paralytic. The two men were beheaded together, making James the first of the Apostles to shed his blood for Christ.
The Gospel for his feast is a rather unflattering one, but is important nonetheless as it foreshadows the death James was to suffer for Christ. James' and John's mother tries to barter with our Lord for her sons to receive some sort of special treatment in the kingdom to come. She doesn't really know what she's asking, and our Lord points that out to her. But, that great Father of the Christian East of the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom, has an interesting take on it: James, John and their mother aren't asking our Lord for anything spiritual; they're looking for some sort of honor. They're not even sure what they want, as I said; they just know that our Lord's been talking about heavenly things, and they want some sort of promise of special treatment, and this is a spiritual fault. You see this very frequently when you're the pastor of a parish: you have this particular person who is very spiritual—which is good—but this causes him or her—and it's usually a her—to give in to the temptation to think of herself as something special; so, she'll approach the priest and ask for some direction or counsel, and you'll say, “OK, just call the office and make an appointment.” And she doesn't like that, because she wants some kind of attention that's more than what any other parishioner would receive; so, the priest has to take her down a peg, and not treat her any differently than any other parishioner, otherwise he's just feeding into her sin of pride. It's a particularly affective weapon of the Devil: to take people in the first stages of spiritual awakening, and lead them to think that, because they are interested in spiritual perfection, they are better than everyone else and deserve special attention from the parish priest. So, the priest has to slap her down for her own good.
So, when our Lord says to the mother of James and John, “What do you want?” it's not because he doesn't know what's on their minds; but he needs to make a correction, so, as St. John Chrysostom puts it:
“We want You to do for us,” they say, “whatever we ask.” To which Christ answers, “What do you want?” certainly not unknowing, but in order to force them to reply so that He might open the ulcer and apply the medicine to it.*
And here we see the real purpose of our Lord in castigating “Mom” the way he does. He needs to apply, as Chrysostom says, medicine to the ulcer, which, in this case, is the sin of pride. He goes on to speculate that, after our Lord explains to them what they're really asking, which is the honor of drinking “the chalice that I am going to drink,” as he says,—in other words, his passion and death—they are filled with remorse over their mother's request; and, it's this that motivates James to go on and ultimately be the first of the Apostles to give his life for Christ. It dovetails with what we said on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene about guilt being a great motivator to spur us on to do great things for our Lord.
So, James is a trailblazer: he's not only the first Apostle to be embarrassed by his mother; he's also the first to venture out of the Holy Land, taking the Holy Gospel and the Christian religion to Spain, which remained militantly devoted to the Catholic Faith for over a thousand years; and, he was the first Apostle to die a martyr's death. On his feast we should pray that the Lord apply the medicine of humility to the ulcer of our own pride, and not hesitate to whittle us down to size when that is what is for our spiritual good.
* Homily on Matthew, as quoted in Lesson vii for Matins for the Feast of the Blessed Apostle James, Breviarium Romanum, 1960 edition.