Our church
Under one roof
Prayer Board
Contact us






Following the Way of St James Acts 11:27- 12:2 and Matthew 20:20-28

Many of you will know that 4 years ago, as part of my sabbatical leave, I was able to go on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in North Eastern Spain. There are many different routes which pilgrims follow and many different reasons why they journey along what is called the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrimage really starts the moment you step outside your front door, but there are official starting points all over Europe. Some of them converge in the region of the Pyrenees. I only walked the last 200 km of it which was an adventure in itself. Each year around 100,000 people join the pilgrimage experience and many do it in smaller distances, returning each year to do a little more. The experience of making your way along the Camino is just as meaningful as actually arriving. Today Santiago will be crowded with excited pilgrims because it is the most sacred of days in the life of the cathedral there: St James’ Day falls on a Sunday and in recognition of this a special door is opened through which pilgrims may pass. It is a jubilee or Holy Year and making pilgrimage this year gains special merit for those who believe in such things. In some ways it would be wonderful to be there today, but I’m not sure there would be anywhere to stay and it is good to celebrate with you as my fellow pilgrims in the Christian life right here.

How did Santiago and its cathedral come into being? According to the Gospels, the apostles were commissioned by Christ to take the good news into all the world. Undoubtedly some of them did travel outside Palestine, but where each one went other than what we know from the Bible, is dependent on legends. In later centuries, different countries would promote the story that the Church in their nation had been founded by one of the 12 apostles, so that they might hold their heads up proudly as being of equal importance with other nations which also claimed apostolic foundation. Although we know from the Bible that St Paul aimed to get there, Spain claims St James the Great, whose day it is today. The legend there is that, soon after the crucifixion of Christ, St James came to bring the message of Jesus's death and resurrection to the Celts of the Iberian peninsula. He then returned to Jerusalem, where he was killed by King Herod Agrippa in CE 44. The Acts of the Apostles reads: 'About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.'

Yet the Spanish legend doesn't end there. They claim that his remains were brought back to Spain and buried in Galicia, the north-west corner of the country. But the Roman emperors persecuted the Spanish Christians, and the tomb of St James was abandoned in the third century, and they even forgot where he was buried. In CE814, a hermit called Pelayo saw a star hanging above a particular field, which he called the Field of the Star - in Latin, campus Stella. He reported that this was where St James's body had been buried, and when digging began, what was claimed to be the tomb of the apostle was found, and a chapel was erected over it. Now the original Hebrew word for James was Jacob; it was translated into Greek as iakobos. Somehow the English language distorted this into James; the Spanish are nearer the mark when they call him 'Iago'. So in Spanish, the Field of the Star where St James's tomb was found becomes Santiago de Compostela. King Alfonso II of Asturias became the first pilgrim to the site, and built a church. As the number of pilgrims increased, larger churches were built, until the present building was begun in 1170. It's in granite, in the Romanesque style, known in England as Norman architecture, with round arches. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the largest Romanesque building in Spain, and one of the largest in Europe.

Pilgrimages were made in the Middle Ages, either to visit a place where prayers were answered, to seek healing or as an act of penance showing true penitence for sins. Well-marked pilgrim routes from all over Europe led to Santiago, and in the last 40 years the Santiago pilgrimage has grown in popularity. One of the highlights of a visit to the cathedral is if you can see the huge incense burner, the Botafumeiro, weighing 80 kilogrammes, which on special occasions is swung by a special pulley mechanism from the roof of the nave, almost reaching the roof of the two transepts on either side, pouring out clouds of incense.

The Moors
At one time there were many Moors in Spain, Muslims from North Africa. Once, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in peace and mutual respect, discussing science, religion and tolerance. Tragically, under King Philip II in the sixteenth century, the Spanish Inquisition killed or expelled the majority of the Muslims, together with the Jews and Protestants, making St James their patron and alleging that his spirit had returned to earth to fight and kill on their behalf.

Praise and blame
St James the Apostle can't be blamed for this misuse of his name. But the medieval devotion to St James showed that prayers are answered, God can heal, and the effort of journeying to a place of historic holiness can have a profound effect on the life of a pilgrim. You can tell by the fact that I can still talk about it with enthusiasm! In many ways my experiences helped me to deepen my faith and to understand the whole Christian life as a pilgrimage from baptism to death. It also taught me some valuable lessons whilst on this pilgrimage through life. I think I’ve shared these with you before, but they are so valuable that I make no apology in repeating them. The first lesson I’ve already mentioned: to see our whole life as a pilgrimage. Doing so helps us have a sense of direction and purpose. We are not wandering aimlessly through life, but following a Camino, a Way: and although the Camino de Santiago is dedicated to St James, the Way for all Christians is, of course, the Way of Christ. We follow our Lord who has blazed a trail, who has pioneered the way to heaven. That does not mean we wish away our lives or don’t value what it means to be on this earth, but it does help us see our ultimate destination is heaven.

The second lesson I learnt was about travelling light. The words of the prayer in our Iona service echoed strongly for me as I prepared to go on pilgrimage with only a rucksack on my back. “Help us to leave behind what we no longer need, so we might become what we could be with you.” How much we clutter up our lives, both materially and mentally! As we seek to follow the Way of Christ, he calls us to leave behind all that can hold us back, slow us down or prevent us from moving forward in faith. This is a continuous process as we discover more and more of what we do not need or didn’t realise that we were holding onto so tightly.

The third lesson is about how we find our way through this life pilgrimage. Some of you will know about my experience with the yellow arrows. These are painted at places where the pilgrim needs guidance to find the right route. I learnt not to try and memorize what was written down in the guide book because it slowed me down and I couldn’t remember all the details anyway! I learnt to look for the yellow arrow and to trust that when I needed to know where to change direction, an arrow would show the way. As we walk through life by faith we do not need to worry about the future and finding God’s guidance on ahead. We trust that each day or at each turn of life’s adventure, we will receive such directions as we need. God will show us the way at the right time.

Today I think of Santiago and the crowds of pilgrims. As I share with you my Christian story may we together follow the Camino of Christ and be faithful to him, even as he is faithful to us and will not leave us nor forsake us. As the pilgrims say to each other in Spanish: Buen Camino! Have a good journey!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Gracious Father,
by the obedience of Jesus
you brought salvation to our wayward world:
draw us into harmony with your will,
that we may find all things restored in him,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.