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Aligning Our Ambition With The Mission

Saint James the Greater, Apostle

Saint James the Greater, Apostle

“There is a loftier ambition than merely to stand high in the world. It is to stoop down and lift mankind a little higher.” ~ Henry Van Dyke

Today our Church celebrates the man whom Jesus willed to be among the first to drink of the chalice of suffering as foreshadowed in today’s Gospel (Matthew 20:20-38), Saint James the Greater. In fact according to written tradition, James was the first of the Apostles to have shed his blood for Christ, having died by the sword at the hands of King Herod Agrippa, the grandson of the better known King Herod the Great. This is captured in the early stages of the 12th Chapter in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles (12:1-2)). It serves as a succinct precursor to his fellow Apostle Peter’s miraculous escape from prison.

“The Greater" is a title that was added to Saint James' name in order to help distinguish him from the Apostle James "the Less," whom we memorialize on May 3rd along with his fellow Apostle Phillip (John 14:6-14). Legend has it that the titles were assigned as they were due to the fact that James the Less was believed to have been shorter than James "the Greater.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI however believed that there was something more to the distinction as he would explain by way of a General Audience on the Feast Day of Saint James a number of years ago:

“The biblical list of the twelve mention two men with the name James. James, son of Zebedee and James, son of Alpheus. They are commonly distinguished with the name James the Greater and James the Less. These titles are certainly not intended to measure their holiness as some might think. These titles are there to simply state the difference of importance they received in the writings of the New Testament, particularly in the setting of Jesus‘ earthly life.”

By virtue of the biblical accounts we have, we know that James the Greater was on hand for many of the seminal moments in Jesus’ ministry. As today’s Entrance Antiphon reminds us, “As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother mending their nets and he called them.” (Matthew 4:18, 21).

Jesus called, they followed. Immediately.

As part of Jesus’ tight inner circle along with Peter and John, James was there for the best of times and the worst of times as it were. He witnessed the sublime and indescribable splendor of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a forestaste of the Beatific Vision, that which we all yearn to gaze upon more so than anything, a reality so few are aware of. James also witnessed Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is here that he sees his Master in the depths of his suffering and utter humiliation. He watched with his own eyes as the only Son of God humbled himself, making himself obedient unto death. It was on the cross that Jesus’ glory was fulfilled.

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Having witnessed these drastically different events no doubt contributed to James’ amazing evolution, an evolution we’ve reflected on in the past Clearly James and John were at first fueled by worldly ambition in the hopes of gaining prestige and positions of honor, something we can all no doubt relate to. And when it came to asking, or in this case sending their mother up to the plate on their behalf, they were not shy. “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.” This was her brazen request, framed almost as a demand.

Ambition, coupled with determination and perseverance, always accompanies great dreams and the accomplishments born from them. Former NBA great and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley was always quick to say “Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.” But it was Napoleon who understood the danger of misguided ambition. He said “Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.” This observation sheds light on the characteristic of ambition as viewed through the prism of the spiritual life.

As Christians, we have a slightly different take on this virtue. Ambition must first be aligned with God’s will. It can never be self-serving or vain but instead focused on our evangelical edict. Whenever it strays from that mission, it can instead contribute to our ruination. It was the great Italian Poet Petrarch who once said “Five enemies of peace inhabit with us - avarice, ambition, envy, anger, and pride; if these were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace.” Thomas Merton went so far as to say “When ambition ends, happiness begins.”

Sealed and emboldened with the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room at Pentecost, James would be unflinching when his hour of supreme witness arrived. It’s hard to determine whether or not he truly knew what he was agreeing to when Jesus asked him if he was willing to drink from the same cup as him, but to his extreme credit, he did indeed keep his promise and drink from that cup, doing so with heroic fortitude and at the expense of his very life. Doing so just as his Lord and Master did.

Saint James the Greater stands before us as a truly eloquent example of generous adherence to Jesus, a turnaround story for the ages. He who had initially requested to be seated with his brother next to his Master in the Heavenly Kingdom was instead the first to drink the chalice of Jesus’ passion and share martyrdom with his fellow Apostles. He did so by aligning his ambition to that of God’s plan for him. Once James re-channeled his disordered and misguided ambition and aligned it with God’s will, he placed himself on the path to Sainthood. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson he leaves us. That, in the words of Alexander Pope, “The same ambition can destroy or save, and make a patriot as it makes a knave.”

Saint James, pray for us….

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