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Cultural info/ The apostle

The apostleThe New Testament records that St. James "the Greater" (Santiago in Spanish) was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee and the elder brother of St. John the Evangelist. Both were the sons of Zebedee and Salome.

In the Gospels, St. James figures prominently in four memorable scenes during Jesus' earthly life: when his mother Salome asked Jesus to grant her sons places at either side of Him in Paradise, when Jesus gave them the nickname Boanerges, or "sons of thunder" for their fiery tempers after an incident in which the two brothers asked Him if they should call down fire from Heaven to punish the inhabitants of an unbelieving town, beside his brother and St. Peter at Jesus' Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, and as one of the of the same trio that slept during Christ's suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to His arrest and crucifixion.

How his remains came to rest in a remote corner of northwestern Spain is a fascinating tale, a curious mix of sacred tradition, cultural memory and pious legend.

Following Jesus'ascension and the events of Pentecost, the Apostles scattered to carry the Christian gospel to every corner of the known world: everyone knows that St. Peter ended up in Rome; other traditions no less ancient place St. Thomas in India, St. Andrew in Byzantium, St. Jude Thaddeus in Persia, St. Matthew in Ethiopia and so forth.

To St. James fell the evangelisation of the Roman province of Hispania (modern-day Spain). Travelling there in the company of a small group of disciples, he preached the Gospel here for several years without much success; he succeeded in making only a handful of converts and appointed bishops in the cities of León and Astorga before returning to Jerusalem. There he suffered martyrdom at the hands of King Herod Agrippa I (Acts of the Apostles 12: 1-3).

Subsequent traditions recount how a small group of his disciples recovered the Apostle's remains, placed them in a boat and set sail for Spain. Eventually they landed at the Roman settlement of Iria Flavia on the Atlantic coast, not far from the modern town of Padrón. Intending to bury the sacred relics, they were met with many difficulties, including the opposition of a local pagan queen who set a series of tests for them before agreeing to allow the burial of the body in her territory. Finally, they were given a plot of land in which to bury the remains, and two of the disciples, Athanasius and Theodore, stayed behind and spent the rest of their lives in prayer, watching over the tomb.

And then nothing. Although stories of St. James and his presence in Hispania were never entirely forgotten, memory of the tomb's location apparently was. It lay lost for nearly seven centuries. Then, in A.D. 813 (some authors say 820) an extraordinary miracle occurred: the location of the tomb was revealed to a hermit named Pelayo, who was guided to it by a star and the sound of heavenly choirs of angels singing (hence the name Compostela for the city, from the Latin campus stellae, "the field of the star"); Pelayo immediately informed his bishop Teodomiro, who, after verifying the authenticity of the relics himself, ordered a church to be built on the site. He then sent word to King Alfonso II the Chaste, who travelled to the tomb to venerate the relics of the Apostle himself and ordered that the simple church constructed by the bishop be enlarged. It was not long after that the first pilgrims began to arrive to venerate the relics.

As word of the relics'rediscovery spread throughout Christendom, it set in motion a wave of pilgrimages, at first a trickle and eventually a flood, from every corner of Europe. Pilgrims came pouring into the Christian kingdoms of the north, and alongside them came merchants, craftsmen, architects and monks, as well as much-needed economic and military aid for the wars of re-conquest against the Muslim armies further to the south. Thus was born the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, the third most important site of pilgrimage for medieval European Christians after Jerusalem and Rome.

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