THE GOSPELS TELL US LITTLE about the man who approached Jesus to learn how to attain eternal life. Luke (18:18-27) calls him “a ruler;” Matthew (19:16-26) describes him as “a young man.” Both agree that he was rich. He was not willing to abandon his status and his wealth to follow Jesus, he became the classic example of how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God if your mind is on wealth and power in the kingdom of this age.
On November 27 the Byzantine Churches remember another rich young man – one who made a very different decision from his Scriptural counterpart. The holy martyr James the Persian lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. He was raised a Christian at a time when Christians exercised a measure of freedom in the Persian Empire.
James became a respected and important member of Persian society. He was a military officer under Yisdegerd I and a favorite companion of his son, Bahram. James enjoyed royal favor, wealth and an enviable position in the inner circle of the Persian royal family. He was, in short, a rich young man.
Christianity under Attack
Religion and politics were inseparably entwined in this era. When the Roman Empire persecuted Christians, the Persian Empire welcomed them. Thus when Jerusalem was demolished in the second century many of its Christians crossed the border into the Persian realm.
On the other hand, as Christianity came to be the official religion in the Roman Empire, life became difficult for Christians in Persia. Yisdigerd I, who had at first protected Christians and persecuted Zoroastrians, reversed his policy. The Church of the East was cut off from the Churches in the Roman Empire in the interests of national security.
When Yisdegerd turned against Christianity he began urging the members of his court to abandon the “Roman religion” in favor of the Persian. The king tried hard to estrange James with gifts and gratuities. He chose a good-natured approach, persuading James with benefits and flatteries, rather than with threats and torments. At first James resisted this pressure, but ultimately was seduced by the many generous favors of the ruler and denied Christ. Like the young ruler in the Gospel, James put status and wealth ahead of the Lord.
According to the account in the Great Synaxarion, James’ wife and mother, hearing what he had done, wrote to him to this effect: “It was not proper to your nobility to exchange falsehood for the truth; to defraud the faith for the honor of men and temporary rewards, which pass by as a dream and disperse like smoke; and to love the perishable and temporary kingdom, and abandon immortality and eternity. For this violation you would elect to be cast into the inextinguishable fire and endless torment?… We have been greatly distressed by you and pour forth many tears and, with all our hearts, we pray to the true God not to desert you, as He is compassionate, but to receive your return. … you departed badly; but the Master, whom you denied, will receive you with open arms and rejoicing. If you disdain our advice and tears, when you reach the divine judgment, you will be punished in torments endlessly and your crying will be in vain.”
James was moved by his wife and mother and resolved to confess Christ before the Persians. Meanwhile James’ onetime friend Bahram had become the emperor on the death of his father Yizdegerd. Bahram V, intensified pressure on Christians to adopt the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. When the king learned that James had reverted to Christianity, he confronted him and tried to persuade him to return to the Persian religion. When James refused, Bahram invoked their friendship and promised him greater wealth and power than before. Again James refused and the king, in a rage, handed him over to be tortured.
Taking the advice of a more obliging courtier, the king ordered that James be tortured in a public spectacle. His body was slowly dismembered: first his thumb was cut off, then each finger and so on. At each amputation he was encouraged to save his life by renouncing Christ. Instead James answered each time with a prayer. After several hours he was finally beheaded. When the news of this reached Constantinople it caused the Roman emperor to invade Persia, starting the brief Roman-Sassanid War (421-422).
James quickly came to be revered in the Byzantine Churches as James the Persian and among the Latins as St James Intercessus (the Dismembered). The great Armenian cathedral in Jerusalem is dedicated to his memory.
James and the Melkite Church Today
By the sixth century a monastery had been erected in his honor in Qara, a desert town north of Damascus. Abandoned since the death of the last monk in 1930, it was restored and, in 2000, reestablished by the Melkite metropolitan of Homs, Hama and Yabroud, Kyr Ibrahim Nehmé. The monastery is dedicated to the service of Unity of the Christians of the Middle East and in a spirit of openness towards Muslims as well. The monastery was founded as a women’s community, but by 2004 a men’s
monastery has also been established there. These communities include members from various traditions – Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Syriac Orthodox – and even includes brothers from Muslim background.
Besides the usual practices of traditional monasticism – worship, asceticism and communal life – the communities at St James Monastery are noted for their commitment to Christian unity. While remaining monastics of the Melkite eparchy of Homs, they accord filial honor, to all the Patriarchs of Antioch – Greek Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic – and from there embark towards ecumenical horizons and loving openness towards the other Churches and religions.
Another Troparion (Tone 4) You astounded all, long-suffering James, by enduring horrible tortures with great patience. As the evil assembly performed the slaughter, you uttered prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord. Through your sufferings you received your crown,
and came to the throne of the heavenly King, Christ God. Entreat Him to save our souls!
Kontakion (Tone 2) You listened to your wife and considerer the final judgment O courageous James. You spurned the threats and commands of the Persians and your body was pruned like a vine. We praise you; O noble Martyr.