HOMILY for the feast of St James the Great
Today is, famously, the feast of Spain’s patron saint, whose shrine in the north-western corner of Spain still draws thousands on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, especially in the summer months. On the way there, and indeed, throughout the Spanish peninsula, many will encounter an image of a bearded man with a broad-brimmed pilgrim’s hat decorated with a scallop shell. This tells us that it is St James. And the apostle is depicted charging in on horseback, brandishing a sword. And under the horse’s feet lie several men wearing turbans. This is the image of Santiago Matamoros, the ‘Slayer of the Moors’.
According to tradition, St James appeared at a decisive battle against the Moors in May 844 to help the Christian armies of the Spanish kingdoms to defeat and turn back the Muslim forces which had, until then, steadily conquered the south of Spain and were threatening to conquer the rest of Europe. The south of Spain, forming the kingdom of Andalusia, remained under Muslim rule as an Islamic civilization for 700 years. However, the appearence of St James in 844 is seen as the start of a ‘re-conquest’ of southern Spain and its return to the Christian Faith.
For many today, this image of Santiago Matamoros is somewhat controversial. Its violent stance has been said to be contrary to the Gospel. And yet, it remains meaningful for many people. In Santiago de Compostela in 2004, the cathedral authorities wanted to remove their statue of the Matamoros but there was such a public outcry that they agreed to let it remain. So, we need to wonder, just what does the image of Santiago Matamoros represent? Why did the Spanish Christians appeal to St James for help? Why did they want a heavenly defender to help defeat the Moors?
If we accept the popular mythology of Andalusia as an enlightened civilization led by philosophically sophisticated Muslim rulers then, indeed, this doesn’t make sense. Many people want to believe that Andalusia was a place of toleration and harmony in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peace until the intolerant Christian rulers captured Grenada in 1492 and so ended benign Muslim rule on the Spanish peninsula. But if this is so, why did the people pray for liberation through St James?
If we want to understand why the people of medieval Spain needed a defender, we need only look east to where a new Islamist caliphate, directly inspired by the medieval Moorish caliphate, is trying to take hold in Syria and Iraq. But those who would perpetuate the myth of an Andalusia under benevolent Muslim rule are, by and large, the same people who refused to report what is now happening in Iraq under the ‘Islamic State’. Then, as now, non-Muslims were heavily taxed in exchange for this so-called ‘toleration’. Then, like now in Iraq and Syria, those who preached against the Islamic State were beheaded or crucified. Then, as now, churches were destroyed, and people were forced to flee. Thankfully, prominent Muslim leaders of our times have now rejected the version of Islam currently being imposed by the ‘Islamic State’.
Nevertheless, persecuted Christians then, as now, prayed for deliverance. The Matamoros, therefore, is a sign of God coming in the person of his Apostle to save his people and to vindicate their prayers; God coming to defeat evil-doers and to re-establish justice.
We are right to be uncomfortable with the violent imagery of the Matamoros. For as the Holy Father said last weekend, “Violence isn’t overcome with violence. Violence is conquered with peace”. However, the Matamoros image is still meaningful because it is essentially not so much an incitement to war nor a justification of religious violence – for these can never be pleasing to God – but, rather, a dramatic depiction of divine protection and justice – for God will save us! The Scriptures are full of images and stories of God routing armies and defeating the enemies of Israel; we sing of this in the psalms every day. So, how are we to make sense of these, if not to see in them a promise that God will vindicate his people, that he will judge the wicked, and bring true justice? For there can be “no peace without justice” as Pope St John Paul II has said.
Indeed the Gospels make this point concerning St James and the other apostles too. For while the apostles are called to servant leadership, they are also called to mete out justice. For Christ does answer the mother of Zebedee’s request that her sons sit on heavenly thrones beside him. In the previous chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, he said: “when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28). So, St James will be called to execute judgement with Christ; to rescue persecuted Christians, and to deliver justice, liberation, and peace to all people of good will.
Rightly, then, today do we ask St James to intercede for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Iraq and elsewhere around the world. Rightly do we cry out to God for justice and peace in our world. Thus the medieval Spanish cried out: “Dios ayuda y Santiago”!