Celebrating the Life of St. James in Jerusalem’s Old City

November 5 is dedicated to Jesus’s brother and is celebrated with round loaves of bread, symbolizing James’s blessing.

November 5, 2014 11:09
4 minute read.
Old City

Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem. (photo credit: TRAVELUHJAH)

Orthodox Christians will celebrate the Feast of St. James on November 5, and there is no better place to be than in Jerusalem’s Old City for activities and sites to visit in the Christian and Armenian quarters.

This morning the Greek Patriarch held a solemn Eucharist at Saint John’s Cathedral near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and then lead a processional to the Greek Patriarchate. The day, dedicated to Jesus’s brother, is celebrated with round loaves of bread, symbolizing James’s blessing.

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After the morning mass and processional, pilgrims continued to honor St. James by visiting the church dedicated to him. The Cathedral of St. James is the heart of the Armenian Quarter of the Old City and is only open to the public between 3-3:30 p.m. during the daily mass. The 12th-century Armenian Orthodox church is actually dedicated to two James: James the Greater, one of the Twelve Apostles, and James the Just, the brother of Jesus.

Most of the current interior decoration dates from the renovation carried out by Patriarch Gregory the Chain-bearer (1715-1749). Aside from the Feast of St. James, the church is the focus of the Armenian community's annual Easter panoply, including a festive parade through the street of the Old City led by the traditional boy scouts marching band.

James, Jesus’s brother, is believed to be buried in this church under the main altar in the sanctuary. James, who was Jewish, is considered by some denominations to be the first Bishop of Jerusalem. He presided over the Council of Jerusalem according to Acts 15 and, in his 30 years leading the early church, James was influential in setting doctrine for new believers in Jesus.

In fact, it was James who mediated on behalf of Gentiles who were coming to faith. At the time, a sharp dispute had arisen as to how much of Jewish law knew believers should be required to abide by.

"James spoke up. ‘Brothers,' he said, 'listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
‘"After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things—
things known from long ago.’"

'It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.’” Acts 15:13-21

James was martyred in 63 AD.

The Armenians say that the head of the other James, one Jesus’s 12 disciples, is also buried in the church. He was killed by Herod Agrippas in the year 44 AD. His head is located in a crypt in a small room off the main area of the sanctuary, while the rest of his body is scattered in burial sites.

The walls surrounding the courtyard outside St. James Church are marked with engraved crosses. Plaques and tombs of previous patriarchs also are noted in the courtyard in addition to a number of ancient Armenian inscriptions. Inside the church, paintings of biblical scenes adorn the walls. There is no electricity in the church and so colorful gas lamps are suspended from the domed ceiling. The services are conducted in Armenian and much of the liturgy is chanted by the monks.

Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity in 301 AD. Since then, Christians made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and established a community on Mount Zion. To this day, there is an Armenian community in the Old City with about 2,000 residents.

If you go:

Church of St. James is located within the residential compound of the Armenian Quarter. Built in 12th century on the remains of a 5th century Georgian church, St. James's present structure is one of the few remaining Crusader cathedrals to have survived almost intact, though it remains on the World Monuments Fund Watch List as ‘at risk’.  The church displays numerous layers of architectural styles reflecting the many years of its existence. However, reflecting its age, the church still has no electricity in the building and oil lamps provide the only illumination at night while sun lights up the church through the small windows during the day time. The Armenian service is primarily chanted by priests in ancient Armenian.

Mass Services are daily from 3:00 – 3:30 pm only.

Nicole Jansezian writes for  Travelujah-Holy Land tours, the leading Christian travel network focusing on Holy Land tours.

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