It feels a bit silly to approach a “mere” major feast day with an “old & new” comparative article. That sort of analysis is usually better spent upon whole seasons rather than individual days. But this holiday in particular has undergone some interesting transformation and reassessment and repurposing.
First of all, let’s consider the traditional Collect. Roughly adapted to modern idiom, it reads:
O ALMIGHTY God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life; that, following the steps of your holy Apostles, Saint Philip and Saint James, we may steadfastly walk in the way that leads to eternal life; through the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
This collect, dropping the mention of Philip and James, has been repurposed as the Collect for the 5th Sunday of Easter in the modern calendar. This is pretty neat: the collect was considered so great that it got moved to a Sunday where it will be heard by the majority of church-goers (rather than only the few who participate in the liturgy during the week). And placing that Collect in Eastertide means that it’ll always be generally near the May 1st holiday it originally belonged to. The modern collect for Saints Philip & James Day still draws upon the “way, truth, and life” quote, pairing with mostly the same Gospel reading as in the traditional lectionary, which is good, though the petition and application of the Collect comes out rather differently:
Almighty God, who gave to your apostles Philip and James the grace and strength to bear witness to Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life: Grant that we, being mindful of their victory of faith, may glorify in life and death the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The other major change is the Epistle. Traditionally, the reading was James 1:1-12. Those verses did have some thematic connection with the traditional Collect, but a more significant consideration is the identity of James. There are, today, typically three men named James in the New Testament:
- James the Great/Elder, Apostle, brother of the Apostle John, commemorated on July 25th
- James the Less, Apostle, commemorated with Philip on May 1st
- James of Jerusalem, kinsman of Jesus, author of the Epistle of James, commemorated on October 23rd
For a good portion of the Church’s history of biblical interpretation, James the Less and James of Jerusalem have tended to be considered the same man. But, now that scholarly opinion prefers to see three different characters named James, it was decided that the epistle of James should be not read on the feast day for the “wrong James”, so a different epistle lesson was appointed instead: the popular “jars of clay” passage, 2 Corinthians 4:1-7.
This text, too, has a thematic role: it speaks of the ministry of the apostles, of veiling and unveiling the truth, of blindness and sight, knowledge of the glory of Christ presented in earthen vessels. Echoes of John 14 can be found here, and so can an allegory of these lesser-known apostles: compared to other apostles whom we know better from the Scriptures, Philip and James are very much like clay jars (humble, seemingly expendable characters) who nevertheless carried the glorious and imperishable word of God to the nations.