St. James is described as one of the first disciples along with his brother John to join Jesus (Mk 1:19-20). He was one of the three whom Jesus took with him when he raised Jairus daughter from the dead (Mk 5:35-43), on the mountain of transfiguration (Mk 9:2-9) and at Gethsemane (Mk 14:32-42).
The Acts of the Apostles 12:1 records that Herod had James executed by sword. He is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament.
The Gospel text chosen for the feast of St. James is from the Gospel of Matthew. In order to spare the disciples, whom Matthew usually represents as understanding, Matthew replaces the Marcan disciples’ own request with one represented by their mother and does not name the “sons of Zebedee” here. The request for seats at the “right hand and left hand” reflects the rule of the Son of Man from his throne.
In his reply to the request the Matthean Jesus focuses on the image of the cup which is used as a symbol for suffering, testing, rejection, judgement and even violent death. Though they express confidence that they are able to drink the cup, Jesus knows better. However, even martyrdom will not gain the disciples special places. That is God’s prerogative and grace.
Jesus then takes the disciples to another level and perspective of leadership where to be a leader is not to dominate or dictate but to serve. Christian leadership may be defined as service.
James understood this after the death and resurrection of Jesus as was evident in his martyrdom. He followed his Lord and Master to the end and did indeed drink the cup courageously.