James, each year we give the rejoicing due to you.
Sweet instruments will be sounded in harmony.
Compostela has been a favourite destination for thousands of Christian pilgrims for many centuries, especially around the 25th July. One of Chaucer's pilgrim, the "worthy woman from Bath" had been to Compostela as had Margery Kempe, a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, and a mystic in her own right.
Why was this town, situated far away under the mists of the Galician sky in north-west Spain, so popular? Firstly, because of its connection with St. James, one of the favoured apostles. In this remote part of Spain a church was built over a stone tomb found in a field in the 10thC by the king of Asturias, Alfonso II. An 11thC. document detailed how the hermit Pelagius informed the local bishop of Iria Flavia, Theodomir, of a vision he had to uncover a hidden tomb containing the body and head of the apostle James, which had been shipped to Spain from Jaffa after his martyrdom in 44AD (see Acts 12. 1-2). Upon the discovery of the tomb the king declared St. James the protector of Spain. From now onwards it would always be Santiago de Compostela and the church became the cathedral.
Secondly, through the knights of Compostela. Before this church was built Spain had been overrun by the Moors who advanced into France before being defeated by Charles Martel in the battle of Tours in 732, one of the most important battles for the existence of the Christian faith in Europe. Shortly after the completion of the cathedral of St. James, Compostela was sacked, and the bells of its cathedral were dismantled and carried on the backs of Christian captives to Corbova. Thus St. James also became the standard bearer for the knights in their war against the Moors, and to free Spain from these infidels. This was finally achieved in 1492, the same year that Columbus discovered the Americas.
As Compostela became more popular with pilgrims, Benedictine monasteries were built along the way, especially in France to provide both spiritual and temporal needs of the pilgrims who travelled from all parts of Europe. The pilgrims walking on foot all met from their various paths in southern France before setting out to Compostela. Each pilgrim came and still comes with his/her intentions and intercessions to make before the shrine of St. James as well as to participate in the liturgical services in the cathedral for the pilgrims always saw themselves as being part of the body of the Church. Thus there was and is always a corporate aspect of making a pilgrimage to share in the recitation of the daily offices, Liturgy, prayers and hymns on the journey. To be a pilgrim is indeed a very uplifting spiritual experience whether to St. James of Compostela or other shrines and holy places. In England for example the shrine of our Lady at Walsingham is a favourite pilgrimage spot, especially as it has an ecumenical aspect about it. I know my memories of this holy shrine are filled with a deep sense of Christians having prayed here and of a strong presence of the Holy Spirit urging one to continue in that mode.
Obviously not all Christians can set out to Compostela for the feast of St. James but we can all enter into the pilgrim's mentality of rededicating our lives to Christ and to ponder on the merits of this particular saints' day. Although we do not know all that much about James, the fact that he was the first Apostle to be martyred under order by Herod must suggest that he was prominent in spreading the Gospel after the death of Christ. So our first reflection could be to examine our lives in the light of James' missionary work and ascertain how closely we live to the teaching of the Gospel.
St. James as a member of the inner three was privileged to spend occasions very close with our Lord as the healing of Jarius' daughter revealed, and of course his time on Mt. Tabor must have been one of the most ecstatic moments of his life, even though like John and Peter, he did not comprehend its revelation. We too need to stay close to our dear Lord if we want to know Him more intimately as a Person and not just as a name. Thus a second reflection for this feast day could be to make sure we spend time simply to listen to God in the silence of our hearts. Perhaps we too may then be privileged to be lost in the wonder of Christ's presence.
St. James pray for our troubled world so that we all may live in peace.