For longer than I care to remember, I have been marking time, as it were: waiting for the ‘non-essential’ surgery that, when it finally came, relieved a difficulty I had had for a couple of years but unfortunately disclosed sarcoma; the further waits for additional surgery and now radiotherapy and the scans that will establish whether the suspected secondaries are growing or not. To myself it seems as though during all this time I have done nothing of any consequence. I haven’t even waited with patience as a good Benedictine should! Today’s feast reminds us, however, that an anxiety to be up and doing can be a form of pride or even avoidance of what is really asked of us. Activity is not in itself a guarantee that we are doing God’s work: it is simply activity. Sometimes we are asked to do less than we want to do or think ourselves capable of doing — humbling, but the only way to be a true disciple. It was the glory of Philip to lead others to Christ then stand aside, his work done; it was the glory of James to serve the Jerusalem Church then stand aside, that Peter might fulfil his universal role. If that is what the Lord asked of his closest friends, why should he not ask something similar of us?
The feast of SS Philip and James is graced with a beautiful piece of of plainchant, Tanto tempore. I do not mean to slight the apostles when I say that great art isn’t always inspired by great people or great events. Philip and James appear at various points in the New Testament but never, I think, in a way that makes one think of them as heroes or larger-than-life characters. They are good men, not great ones — a wonderful encouragement to those of us who know ourselves to be rather run-of-the-mill people, trying to live good Christian lives but frequently failing. Yet at some time in the past an unknown musician took the words of Jesus, ‘Have I been with you so long, Philip’ and turned them into a musical masterpiece we sing each year on this feast. It is a reminder that God can take the most humdrum of materials — us — and transform them beyond our wildest imaginings.