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Ask a Franciscan: Did Jesus Have Siblings?

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Who Is James, Brother of the Lord?

Q: Television shows and books refer to St. James as the brother of Jesus. In the Apostles’ Creed we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,….” If St. James is Jesus’ brother, would James not also be God’s son? Were Mary and Joseph the parents of James?

A: “James, the brother of the Lord” has puzzled people for centuries. The New Testament refers to three men named James.

James, brother of John the Apostle, himself an apostle and a son of Zebedee (Matthew 4:21, etc.), is called James the Greater. He was martyred by King Herod Agrippa I about 41 A.D. (Acts 12:2) and is venerated in Santiago de Compostela (Spain).

James, son of Alphaeus, also an apostle (Matthew 10:3, etc.), is known as James the Lesser. He was clubbed to death and is often confused with “James, the brother of the Lord.”

This third James is the brother of Joseph/Joses, Simon and Judas of Nazareth (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3). Jesus appeared to this James after the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). With Peter, he led the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13-21), is mentioned by St. Paul (Galatians 2:12) and was stoned to death in 62 A.D. on the high priest’s orders.

This James is the presumed author of the New Testament’s Letter of James. He may have been Jesus’ cousin; other members of his family headed the Church in Jerusalem until that city was destroyed in 70 A.D.

For us, the term “brother” means a male relative sharing identical parents with the person who calls him “brother.” The term, however, in some societies can include other male relatives, even cousins.

Jesus uses “brother” in an even wider sense in Mark 3:35 (“For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”), Matthew 25:40, Luke 22:32 and John 20:17.

The Catholic Church maintains that Mary had only one child, Jesus, who was not biologically the son of Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:34-35).

Already in the second century, the Protoevangelium of James described these “brothers of Jesus” as children of Joseph by a previous marriage. St. Jerome (d. 420) considered them cousins of Jesus.

Matthew 13:56 and Mark 6:3 refer to Jesus’ sisters but give no names.

There is no scriptural evidence that Joseph was a single parent before marrying Mary. Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday) has more on this subject.

How Do the Saints Help Us?

Q: Do you think that saints can help us out? Can you be sure that they are there and that sometimes they talk to you?

A: I think saints help us out primarily by inspiring us to believe that holiness is possible for us—right here, right now.

At Mass, one of the prefaces for the saints says: “God, you renew the Church in every age by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness, living witnesses of your unchanging love. They inspire us by their heroic lives, and help us by their constant prayers to be the living sign of your saving power.”

In rare situations, saints may speak to some people. Most often, the saints help us through their encouraging example to live the Good News generously.

Withdrawing Food and Water?

Q: Hospitals today really encourage people to have living wills. Is it permissible for patients to choose to have water and food withheld in case of very severe illness? I think this is suicide.

A: “Advance medical directives” are more common today than living wills. Usually linked to a power of attorney, these directives identify who is to make medical treatment decisions if the patient cannot.

“Living wills” indicate the use or nonuse of procedures available when the will was written. Such wills often address terminal illness but not other medical conditions. New technologies often arise after a living will is formulated.

The moral obligation to maintain nutrition and hydration is a disputed issue among moral theologians today. Some argue that withdrawing these is permitted if the person is in a persistent vegetative state; others deny that.

In 1995 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health-Care Services.” The bishops say, “There should be a presumption in favor of providing nutrition and hydration to all patients, including patients who require medically assisted nutrition and hydration, as long as this is of sufficient benefit to outweigh the burdens involved to the patient” (#58).

The bishops acknowledge that in some cases maintaining nutrition and hydration could involve excessive burdens for a patient.

In an address to the bishops of California, Nevada and Hawaii (October 2, 1998), Pope John Paul II said that the NCCB’s 1995 statement “rightly emphasizes that the omission of nutrition and hydration intended to cause a patient’s death must be rejected and that, while giving careful consideration to all the factors involved, the presumption should be in favor of providing medically assisted nutrition and hydration to all patients who need them.”

This issue is treated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2278) and the 1995 encyclical, Gospel of Life (#65). Chapter 13 of Father John Dietzen’s Catholic Life in a New Century (Guildhall Publishers, 1997) can help people reflect on their approach to medical treatments. They should share their conclusions with loved ones.

What about Limbo?

Q: Three years ago my unbaptized granddaughter was murdered. She was two years old. I know what the Bible says regarding Baptism, but the thought of her soul not ever being in heaven has taken control of my thoughts so much that I am frequently depressed.

Are unbaptized souls in a state of eternal happiness outside heaven or do they go to hell forever? I pray for my granddaughter’s soul.

A: I am very sorry to learn of your granddaughter’s murder and your anxiety over whether she can be saved. Thanks for writing. I cannot imagine that a good and just God would allow a murdered, unbaptized two-year-old to be anywhere except in heaven.

The Order of Christian Funerals, approved by the Holy See for use in the United States, includes two prayers for children who died before Baptism:

“O Lord, whose ways are beyond understanding, listen to the prayers of your faithful people: that those weighed down by grief at the loss of this child may find reassurance in your infinite goodness….”

“God of all consolation, searcher of mind and heart, the faith of these parents is known to you. Comfort them with the knowledge that the child for whom they grieve is entrusted now to your loving care….”

The way we pray indicates what we believe. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them.

“Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all [people] should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.

“All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism” (#1261).

Even according to earlier Church teaching, your granddaughter would be not in hell but in limbo, a state of natural happiness without enjoying God’s presence.

Why was there a teaching about limbo, anyway? It filled a gap. If you believe that Jesus Christ came for the salvation of all people and if you believe that Jesus sent the apostles to preach the Good News inviting people to be baptized, then you might tend to think that only baptized people can be saved.

If you do that, then you need a place for good people who were never baptized. Limbo was that place. The 1992 Catechism, however, maintains a very deliberate silence about limbo. We should take note of that.

Your granddaughter has been at peace for three years now. I hope that you too can be at peace—even as you ache for her presence.