Righteous Joseph of Arimathea
Then a member of the council arrived, an upright and virtuous man named Joseph. He had not consented to what the others had planned and carried out. He came from Arimathea, a Jewish town, and he lived in the hope of seeing the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. He then took it down, wrapped it in a shroud and put him in a tomb which was hewn in stone in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day and the sabbath was imminent.
Meanwhile the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus were following behind. They took not of the tomb and of the position of the body.
Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. And on the sabbath day they rested, as the Law required.
– Luke 23:50-56, The Jerusalem Bible.
As a fairly recent convert from evangelical fundamentalism, I find myself awakened to a new fascination with the Saints of Church history. What has always amazed me is the wealth of myth surrounding these great Christians. Are these myths just a distraction from the true faith of Christ? I’m reminded of what Catholic writer Joseph Pearce wrote about J.R.R. Tolkien:
Tolkien’s encounter with the depths of Christian mysticism and his understanding of the truths of orthodox theology enabled him to unravel the philosophy of myth that inspired not only the “magic” of his books but also the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity. Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”
“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic “progress” leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.
One difference, of course, between the Saints and faerie stories is that these people were real historical figures. Yet, at the same time they are accredited with miraculous lives going places and doing things the “rational” historian would discredit due to lack of scientific evidence. Such is the case with St. Joseph of Arimathea.The Orthodox Church in America website has this brief outline of the Saint’s life:
Righteous Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ. As a member of the Sanhedrin he did not participate in the “counsel and deed” of the Jews in passing a death sentence for Jesus Christ. After the Crucifixion and Death of the Savior he made bold to go to Pilate and ask him for the Body of the Lord, to Which he gave burial with the help of Righteous Nicodemus, who was also a secret disciple of the Lord.
They took down the Body of the Savior from the Cross, wrapped it in a winding-cloth, and placed it in a new tomb, in which no one had ever been buried, in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the presence of the Mother of God and the holy Myrrh-Bearing Women (St Joseph had prepared this tomb for himself). Having rolled a heavy stone before the entrance of the tomb, they departed (John. 19: 37-42; Mt. 27: 57-61; Mark 15: 43-47; Luke. 24: 50-56).
St Joseph traveled around the world, proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. He died peacefully in England.
England? Did St Joseph of Arimathea visit Britain? According to some traditions, he did. This also contributes to the Grail legend.
An Episcopal Church website expands upon the tradition:
After the Crucifixion, we are told, Joseph returned to Cornwall, bringing the chalice of the Last Supper, known as the Holy Grail. Reaching Glastonbury, he planted his staff, which took root and blossomed into a thorn tree. The Grail was hidden, and part of the great national epic (“the matter of Britain”) deals with the unsuccessful quest of the knights of King Arthur to find the Grail. The Thorn Tree remained at Glastonbury, flowering every year on Christmas day, and King Charles I baited the Roman Catholic chaplain of his queen by pointing out that, although Pope Gregory had proclaimed a reform of the calendar, the Glastonbury Thorn ignored the Pope’s decree and continued to blossom on Christmas Day according to the Old Calendar. The Thorn was cut down by one of Cromwell’s soldiers on the grounds that it was a relic of superstition, and it is said that as it fell, its thorns blinded the axeman in one eye. A tree allegedly grown from a cutting from the original Thorn survives today in Glastonbury (and trees propagated from it stand on the grounds of the Cathedral in Washington, DC, and presumably elsewhere) and leaves from it are sold in all the tourist shops in Glastonbury. Has the Glastonbury legend any basis at all in history? Two facts and some speculations follow:
Tin, an essential ingrediant of bronze, was highly valued in ancient times, and Phoenician ships imported tin from Cornwall. It is a pretty safe guess that in the first century the investors who owned shares in the Cornwall tin trade included at least a few Jewish Christians.
Christianity gained a foothold in Britain very early, probably earlier than in Gaul. It may have been brought there by the traffic of the Cornwall tin trade. If so, then the early British Christians would have a tradition that they had been evangelised by a wealthy Jewish Christian. If they had forgotten his name, it would be natural to consult the Scriptures to see what mention was made of early wealthy Jewish converts. Joseph and Barnabas are almost the only ones named, and much of the life of Barnabas is already accounted for by the book of Acts, which makes him an unsatisfactory candidate. Hence, those who do not like to be vague would say, not, “We were evangelised by some wealthy Jewish Christian whose name we have forgotten,” but, “We were evangelised by Joseph of Arimathaea.”
Am I saying I believe that these myths about St. Joseph are factual? Not necessarily. Most likely not, but there is certainly something fortifying in these legends. The cup of Christ, the shroud, the thorn are icons of inexpressible truths. I believe that they, like typical icons, are windows to certain heavenly realities.