Usurped symbols

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This stained glass window depicts St. James on the Compostelle, “Field of Stars”.

James, “Son of Thunder”, stepped out of a boat and away from his former home and livelihood in response to just one call from Jesus Christ.

James became one of the close 12 disciples who followed Jesus everywhere. For three years they traveled through villages and towns, teaching, healing and attracting crowds of thousands to hear the “good news” recorded in the four gospels.

Once, thunderously angry at a village’s rejection, James suggested calling down “fire from heaven” on the unhappy villagers. Jesus rebuked him, explaining further in some manuscripts: “… the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.”

James walked so closely with Jesus, he was one of just three followers to witness a private revelation of Jesus’ identity.

The last record of James’ life in the Bible was his martyrdom by Herod. In those days the newly labeled “Christians” or followers of “The Way” had traveled from Israel as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, peacefully spreading the good news “which shall be for all people” of new life and salvation from sin through Jesus Christ. Following Jesus’ command and Stephen’s example, early believers died defending the message – but not themselves. James was probably the first of the 12 disciples to be killed.

With these credentials, James presented a natural candidate for the symbol of a major European pilgrimage and holy site. But for Medieval minds and purposes this story was not enough.

Legends spread that James – before and after death – traveled to Spain (even though the apostle Paul wrote after James’ death that no disciple had yet gone there). Other legends variously explained the burial of James’ body in Santiago, evidenced by a hermit’s vision of a bright light and a bishop’s revelation.

A later legend claimed James appeared fighting on a white horse during a religious battle. Thus, the disciple who learned peace from Jesus’ mouth was given the title “Moor-slayer.” Among Spanish crusaders, “¡Santiago, y cierra, España!” became a battle cry.

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Along the way, modern crosses are often the most simple, made of wood and piled with pilgrims’ stones.

Nowadays, that part of history is not lauded on the Way of Saint James, but some older pictures still portray the saint on a white horse and wielding a sword. More notably, crusader crosses mark the trail from start to finish. I’ll never understand how a symbol of Christ’s self-sacrifice got usurped to represent the bloodshed of nonbelievers, but I don’t want to forget that it happened. I want to see those old reminders that inspire me to do my research and try to understand the messages of the world around me.

That said, I am troubled to see that the cockle shells sold at the Le Puy sacristy are still being painted with a red cross and sword.

In France, I went to church almost every Sunday, and it was a joy to sing gusty praises of “l’Agneau de Dieu” without analyzing the messages preached. Now I’m back in English congregations and troubled once more. Too often I hear messages more based on culture and extrapolation than on the actual words of the Bible, especially Jesus.

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A bowl of prayers.

I’m also troubled that it’s common today to discuss the past with disrespect for our ancestors as if that could separate us from their mistakes and explain their evil… as if that could ensure we’re less fallible.

I’m not just talking about religion, of course. I wish I could say with confidence that our generation cares more than those Medieval masses about the accuracy, motivation and affects of our popular ideas and narratives. But those people, if they were educated, probably couldn’t even check facts in their own languages. We can check them in at least 90.

I wonder, sometimes, what ideas pass under our noses without proper inspection. I hope, more and more, that we human beings with beating hearts and working brains will not leave meaning-making to the pundits.

I hope, more and more, we will design our own arguments, beliefs and art.


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