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.
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.
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
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.
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!
© Rev Paul Smith