Commentary on the Epistle of St. James

Rembrandt_St. James the Greater[1]James “the brother of the Lord,” was a kinsman of Jesus.  James became the first bishop of Jerusalem, a post he held from AD 40 until 62 when he was martyred under the persecution wrought by Herod Agrippa. 

The urgent work that James accomplished—he was a very productive leader—was to commission the Apostles to evangelize non-Jews, a decision made at the Church’s first council, the Council of Jerusalem in the 50s.  Converts to Christianity were no longer required to observe Mosaic Law—including circumcision, a decision that made many men happy including Saint Titus, Paul’s companion.  The early Church leaders discerned through the Holy Spirit and the Word of God that the faith should be open to the gentiles.  The Catholic Church went nationwide.  Millions more were converted.  James and the other leaders of the Church took the Word and ran with it. 

Years later, not long before he was martyred, James wrote a pastoral Epistle to “the twelve tribes of the dispersion,” or to the universal Church, populated with the very souls welcomed into the Church as a result of the decision of the Council.  In his letter, James, who was as influential a leader as Peter and Paul, writes of faith and wisdom, riches and poverty, trial under persecution, and the actions of the Holy Spirit that guides the hearer and the doer of the Word of God.

According to James,  simply listening to the Word of God at Church is insufficient to foster a true Christian life.  More is required of the hearer: that they live out the precepts of the gospel in an active way, thereby sharing the faith and building a stronger community.  Doers of the Word—men, women, and children—must share the Word outside the nave.  To listen or to hear but not to act is not faith but rote attendance week after week for the sake of soothing one’s conscience. Such has been the ethos of the past three generations:  pray (halfheartedly), pay (as little as possible), obey (only when I agree with a church rule), and then go away— See next Sunday.

Myself, as a priest, I look forward to Sunday.  I am drained from the week’s work and Sunday is what rejuvenates me, reminds me unequivocally of the purpose of my calling, and by the afternoon when the lights are turned off and the doors locked and vestments put away there is the silence of the Spirit urging me to move forward.  Within the Word we move and live and exist.  You get what you put into the faith.   Who can recall the readings from Mass last Sunday?  Without true faith fortified by works the words proclaimed by the lector and the cleric filter through the mind of the hearers who leave the Church with little more 45 minutes earlier.

Little is accomplished by those who listen to God’s Word at Mass and forget the truth expressed by the Word through the Spirit.  Faith in God alone does not guarantee eternal life.  Faith and works together, that’s a start.  The Word of the Lord is the source of power to accomplish the works. 

As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”  In the case of the Word of God the Word is greater than the actions but the one who acts is empowered by the Word and the Spirit.  That is faith in action.  That is evangelization.  That is the Word made living and effective (Heb 4:12).  

James builds his letter around the call to Christians to demonstrate faith through a life devoted to the living, active Word.

Be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in the mirror.  He sees himself and then goes off and forgets what he looked like. A doer who acts: such a one is blessed in his actions (1:22-25b).

 We are called to put God’s Word into action, to live justly, to be in the Word, that the Word may live in us.  Read and pray with the Scriptures all week before Sunday.  Listen to the Word of God and discern his will through prayers to the Holy Spirit.  The final portion of the Mass, the dismissal, is our mission, when the priest says, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

Father Cordani was ordained to the priesthood in 2011. He holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MDiv from Pope Saint John XXIII National Seminary. He has written for Our Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Register, and Columbia Magazine. Follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tucker.cordani and Twitter @tuckercordani