During the first year that I was a student in London I was a lodger in a vicarage in Bethnal Green. I lived in the basement, and the church, which, sadly, is now closed, was dedicated to St James the Great. From those days I can remember the odd conversation about the difference between St James the Great and St James the Less, who also had churches dedicated to him.
I discovered then that although little is really known about either of them, the James in question this morning was the brother of St John and had a very stormy temperament. He was one of that little group of inner disciples of Jesus, who were there from the beginning. He was witness to the Transfiguration and was one of those who could not stay awake with Jesus as he prayed in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was also the first of the Apostles to be executed for his faith. It is quite intriguing, actually, that both saints are best known for things that came to be associated with their names after their deaths.
For St James the Less, it is the short but important New Testament letter attributed to him, and for St James the Great it is the world famous pilgrimage site in northern Spain at Santiago de Compostela. This is the place where, according to tradition, St James is believed to be buried and which has drawn millions of people over the centuries, since it became popular in the high Middle Ages.
I know I am not the only member of our church who has walked proudly into the cathedral there after a long journey. Even if, embarrassingly in my case, I came via coach and the P&O liner Canberra!
But I have spent a lot of Sunday mornings lately talking about people, so this morning I want to talk about a prayer: the psalm set for the day, number 126.
There is no doubt in my mind that the scholars who picked Psalm 126 for today did so because it has the language of a joyful pilgrimage. It captures the spirit of completing a pilgrimage, like the one to Santiago. When finally arriving, exhausted after a long and perilous journey, the traveller enters a beautiful sacred building and is filled with a suitable sense of thanksgiving and wonder.
‘we were like those who dream,
Then our mouth was filled with laughter
and our tongue with shouts of joy.’
From internal details we know that this psalm was written after the return of the people of Israel from exile and the reconstruction of the Temple in the fifth century BC, but festivals centred on its themes went back 500 years before that, to the time of Solomon’s Temple.
But the context was not quite the same as for our modern pilgrimages. People going on a Christian pilgrimage have gone out of a sense of adventure, or self-discovery, deep penitence, or in order to feel closer to God – Muslims who go on the Haj will say similar things about their pilgrimage to Mecca.
But many of the psalms originated in harvest festivals, of which there were three main ones: Passover, Pentecost and Booths. So these psalms were more about giving thanks to God for crops that fed the body and the heart. The grain harvest and the wine harvest were both celebrated in this way.
There is a powerful link with what we do in church when we celebrate the Last Supper. We call this service the Eucharist because that is the Greek for ‘thanksgiving’. And not only does it have bread and wine at its core, it also is about what God has done. Just as the psalm is a thanksgiving for both the return from exile in Babylon and the earlier liberation from Egypt – themes brought imaginatively together in reggae – the Eucharist is a thanksgiving for God’s action from creation until now. And it should be, like the psalm, a transformative moment of coming home, renewal and joy.
So let us read it or hear it again.
1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion
we were like those who dream.
2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
4Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.