Saint James the Less, Apostle ODM pinxit

Saint James the Less, Apostle ODM pinxit

Saint James, who is called the Less to distinguish him from Saint James the son of Zebedee, was a first cousin of Our Lord and a few years older than He. James grew up with Him in the little village of Nazareth. He joined with the Saviour during the early period of His ministry, as we can deduce from the Gospel narrative: Afterwards Jesus went down to Capharnaum with His Mother, His brothers and His disciples… …[1] He was certainly not among those of His relatives who did not believe in Him, [2] for in the following year, Jesus elevated him to the rank of an Apostle along with Jude, his brother.

From then on, the Gospel is entirely silent concerning him until the glorious day of Easter. On that day, the Risen Christ favored His Apostle with a private apparition. [3] According to Saint Clement of Alexandria, at that time He communicated to him the gift of knowledge, just as He did for Saint Peter and Saint John. [4]

Saint Jerome and Saint Epiphanius also inform us that at the moment of His ascension, the Lord entrusted the Church of Jerusalem to Saint James. Nevertheless, he did not assume that post until after the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. The ensuing persecution deeply troubled the young Church, and the Apostles wanted to give it a pastor who would be able to uphold it by his example, his prayers and his wise instructions.

Saint James carried out his charge with so much wisdom and piety that he was beloved by all the faithful and respected even by the Jews, although they were so implacable against the Christians. Veneration towards him even went so far that some people kissed the hem of his robe. Eusebius has left us a portrait of his sanctity:

“James always lived in virginity. He was a Nazarene, that is, consecrated to God from his mother’s womb. In that capacity, he never had his hair cut. He never drank wine nor any intoxicating beverage. He never ate anything that had lived, except for the Paschal lamb, which was a precept… He wore a simple linen robe, a mantle of coarse cloth and no sandals.” Saint Epiphanius adds, “He prayed so much and so often, prostrate on the ground, that the skin of his forehead and knees became as tough as a camel’s.”

Such eminent sanctity earned him the surname of the Just on the part of the Jews. He was granted the right of entrance into the sanctuary of the Temple, along with the privilege of wearing the linen robe, favors reserved only to the priests of Jehovah.

During the year 51, some new Christians from Judea troubled the Church of Antioch by wanting to force the Gentiles to submit to the circumcision and other legal ceremonies. There was such confusion that a Council was convoked in the Holy City. The Apostles, Saint Paul and several eminent figures in Jerusalem were in attendance. After each person had expressed his thoughts, Saint James the Less took the floor. He began by confirming Saint Peter’s discourse and then formulated the final decision, which was approved by all and sent to the Christians whom the converted Jews had disconcerted. This fact demonstrates the influence of the holy Bishop of Jerusalem in the early Church and the authority of his wisdom.

A few years later, around the year 59, he wrote the canonical epistle that bears his name, which is also designated by the title catholic or universal, for it is addressed not to any Church in particular but to the body of the faithful, spread out over all the known world of that time. The Apostle’s intention is to refute the contentions of false preachers who were abusing some of the expressions of Saint Paul and teaching that Faith alone is sufficient in the matter of our justification, and consequently that good works are useless. He also lays down some excellent rules for leading a holy life and exhorts the believers to faith, joy and confidence in God. In compelling terms he denounces sins of the tongue, which unfortunately are so common and so little repressed.

The worthy bishop perfumed the Holy City for some time more with the fragrance of his virtues, preaching the Name of Jesus Christ to all. Many Jews were converted, including several personages of high condition. Seeing this, the Pharisees and the Doctors of the Law, struck with fear, resolved to do away with him. They therefore summoned the Apostle before the Sanhedrin, accused him of blasphemy and violation of the Law, and then condemned him to be stoned to death.

Before executing their terrible sentence, knowing the holy bishop’s profound influence over the people, the Pharisees brought him to the summit of the Temple and commanded him to deny in a loud voice the divine mission of Jesus of Nazareth, saying, “This will be the way to disabuse those you have misled.” But the Saint began to confess Jesus Christ in the most solemn manner. Raising his voice, he added that this Jesus, the Son of Man, crucified by the Jews, was seated at the right hand of the Sovereign Majesty as the Son of God, and that one day He would return, coming on the clouds of Heaven, to judge the whole world. In a transport of rage, the Scribes and Pharisees cried out, “What! Even the Just One has gone astray!” And then they cast him down.

Broken in his fall, Saint James still had the strength to kneel, and raising his eyes to heaven, he prayed God to forgive his murderers, repeating the words of his Divine Master: They know not what they do. [5]  And the people cast a hail of stones at him. Finally, an executioner ended his life by striking him on the head with a rod. This took place on Easter day, April 10, 61.

The holy Apostle was buried near the Temple on the very spot of his martyrdom. A small column was raised over his grave. His relics were taken to Constantinople around the year 572. The feast day of Saint James the Less is celebrated on May 1, along with Saint Philip the Apostle.

Sources: M. Jacques Collin de Plancy, Grande Vie des Saints (Louis Vivès: Paris, 1878), Vol. IX, pp. 4-8; Alban Butler and Godescard, Vie des Saints (L. Lefort: Lille, 1856), Vol. II, pp. 343-345.

This article has been published in the Magnificat Magazine of May 2018, Editions Magnificat, Mont Tremblant QC, Canada.


[1] St. John 2:12

[2] Cf. St. John 7:5

[3] St. Paul, I Cor. 15:7

[4] Saint Clement of Alexandria, Father of the Church, died circa 215.

[5] St. Luke 23:34

Prayer to saint James the Less

Glorious Apostle Saint James, more than by the bonds of blood, it is your faithful accomplishment of the Divine Will that made you a brother of the Lord, according to these words of Jesus Christ: Whoever does the Will of My Father in heaven, he is My brother, and My sister, and My mother. Although, like the other Apostles, you weakened for a while at the moment of the Passion, your love and sincere repentance quickly attracted Jesus to you: after Saint Peter, you were the first of the Apostles to whom He manifested Himself in particular. By this favor and by your many merits, obtain for us, O generous Saint James, the grace to love our sweet Saviour as you yourself loved Him. May we confess Him with the firmness that is proper to His disciples, and may we never hesitate when it is a matter of proclaiming His rights over every creature. Amen.

Extracts from Saint James’ Epistle

WHAT will it profit, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but does not have works? Can the faith save him? And if a brother or a sister be naked and in want of daily food, and one of you say to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” yet you do not give them what is necessary for the body, what does it profit? So faith too, unless it has works, is dead in itself.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I from my works will show you my faith. You believe that there is one God. You do well. The devils also believe, and tremble. But do you want to know, O senseless man, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar? Do you see that faith worked along with his works, and by the works the faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as justice, and he was called the friend of God. You see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.


IF anyone does not offend in word, he is a perfect man, able also to lead round by the bridle the whole body. For if we put bits into horses’ mouths that they may obey us, we control their whole body also. Behold, even the ships, great as they are, and driven by boisterous winds, are steered by a small rudder wherever the touch of the steersman pleases. So the tongue also is a little member, but it boasts mightily. Behold, how small a fire – how great a forest it kindles.

And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity. The tongue is placed among our members, defiling the whole body, and setting on fire the course of our life, being itself set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, and of serpents and the rest, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind; but the tongue no man can tame – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With it we bless God the Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made after the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. These things, my brothers, ought not to be so.


FOR this reason Peter says, God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Be subject therefore to God, but resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be sorrowful, and mourn, and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy into sadness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will exalt you.


AND now you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and spend a year there, and trade and make money”; you who do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is a mist that appears for a little while, and then vanishes. You ought rather to say, “If the Lord wills,” and, “If we live, we will do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

Epistle of Saint James, 2:14-24; 3:2-10; 4:6-10; 4:13-16.