Saint James Minor

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Why is Saint James called “Minor” and what is that strange lumpy object that is used as his emblem?

First, one might wonder what does it take to get ahead in this world! There were two saints named James among the apostles. The elder (Or taller? Or first-called?  Accounts vary) of the two is known as “Saint James Major,” or “Saint James the Greater.” The other one has gone down in history as “Saint James Minor” or “Saint James the Lesser,” even though he purportedly became the Bishop of Jerusalem!

James Minor is generally identified with Bible references to “James son of Alphaeus” and “James the brother of Jesus.” The brother of Jesus?!  The (not too reliable) medieval Golden Legend collection of saint stories suggested this was because they were similar in appearance. We don’t know. Catholic tradition says James was the son of Mary of Clopas, who was among the women who attended Jesus at the foot of the cross, and may have been related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. “For that reason, and given the fact that the Semitic word for brother is also used for other close relatives, James son of Alpheus is often held as a cousin to Jesus. He is also thought by some to be the brother of Matthew the Apostle, since the father of both was named Alphaeus 

We know very little about James Minor’s life. An early account from a fragment by Hegesippus around 170 AD, claims “He has been universally called the Just, from the days of the Lord down to the present time…” Hegesippus notes that James was not too sociable: he didn’t drink alcohol or eat meat. He didn’t shave or cut his hair. He didn’t bathe or annoint himself with perfumed oil, and “the skin of his knees became horny like that of a camel’s, by reason of his constantly bending the knee in adoration to God, and begging forgiveness for the people”

Hegesippus also offers the account of his death: James was preaching about Jesus in the temple, when disbelievers attacked him. One of the priests tried to stop them, saying “’The just man is praying for us’ But one among them, one of the fullers, took the staff with which he was accustomed to wring out the garments he dyed, and hurled it at the head of the just man. And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot…” The Golden Legend embellishes this a little: “a man in that company took a fuller’s staff and smote him on the head, that his brain fell all abroad and thus by martyrdom he finished his life…

In any case, James Minor’s martyrdom was not dignified or tidy. The fuller’s job was to clean cloth of impurities before dyeing it (at the Transfiguration, Jesus’ clothing is described as brighter than any fuller could make it). In Biblical times, fulling cloth is said to have involved soaking it in a tub of urine and churning it with feet or pounding it with a wooden stick or paddle, which probably remained  chronically moist and smelly. (By 1910, our parish artists had no reliable art references for such an implement, so James got a wicked cave-man club!).


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