The feast day of Joseph of Arimathaea
Genesis 23:3-9, 17-19
Today is the feast day of Joseph of Arimathaea–one of those folks on our calendar about whom we actually know very little–yet his life gained legendary proportions.
Truthfully, we know very little about him in terms of factual information, and most of it is out of the Gospel of John. We know he was wealthy. We know he was one of the Sanhedrin. It is inferred that he was at least an acquaintance of Nicodemus and very possibly a friend. We suspect he, along with Nicodemus, were at least sympathetic to the message of Jesus and very possibly early proto-Christians.
What we know him most for, is boldly inquiring of Pilate to accept responsibility for the body of the crucified Jesus, and, with the help of Nicodemus, prepared Jesus’ body for a proper burial, placing him in Joseph’s own new tomb. We know there are a few references to him in non-canonical sources.
That’s pretty much where the facts end and the legends begin–and although the facts alone are sufficient to feel a connection to this man, the legends are what become more fascinating. Although some legends about Joseph of Arimathaea started as early as the 2nd century, the bulk of them seem to be around 1300. They start with John Crystostom’s claim that Joseph was one of the seventy apostles mentioned in Luke 11, and spread like wildfire. Perhaps the two most beloved legends are that Joseph was a distant relative of Jesus, and took him on a journey to what is now England, and that he was the purveyor of the Holy Grail–the chalice Jesus used in the Last Supper.
It’s clear these legends are very entwined in British self-identity–whether it’s Arthurian folklore, Monty Python, or through the words of William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem,” set to music by Sir Hubert Parry. Perhaps the bigger story within the Joseph of Arimathaea story is what we can learn and understand about ourselves through legend.
In a modern world of facts and figures and scientific proof, we are, unfortunately, often too quick to discount the meaning of legend and the different sort of truth that emerges from legend. Our highly tuned historical factual and scientific minds too often dismiss such “fairy tales” as unscientific, non-factual, un-helpful rubbish in a world where we would rather trust the power of atoms, quarks, and the power of DNA in the determination of our destinies.
Yet, legends are created among us all the time–and the most fascinating part about all legends is they, at some point in time, started with an actually-lived story, but morph into a collective story that reveals the hopes and dreams of the collective–the way we wish it would have been.
I think of two very small legends in my life. One had to do with one of my pathology mentor’s penchant for picking cheap hotels so the resident docs could afford to go to the meeting. I have heard people from all over the country tell the story of “The time Mitch picked a hotel for a meeting in San Francisco that was a flophouse, with prostitutes out front and a gay bathouse inside.” Well, the reality was that he actually picked the hotel NEXT DOOR to the flophouse. Yet somehow, everyone remembers the story as “It was the flophouse.”
The other had to do with what had to be one of the most exciting and fun things that happened in our parish in 2006–the ordination of our priest associate. I was very new to the church at that time and didn’t even go. Yet those who attended would swear I was there. “You remember when we all went to Carrol’s ordination, don’t you?”
I used to argue with people about those stories all the time, that they didn’t have their facts straight. Then, one day, I realized that this wasn’t about getting the facts straight. It was about how people wished things would have been. Staying in the flophouse was more fun for nerdy, straight-laced pathologists. Folks at church wanted me to share in Carrol’s ordination in the same way they did. There became a place where I realized arguing the facts was the wrong thing to do, and I learned to say, “Yeah, wasn’t it something?”
I would never tell anyone to stop looking for the facts in the story of our faith, but what I now tell people, is “Don’t let the facts get in the way of hearing the story of our hope for this world.”
What are the legends of hope in the shared stories of your family, your town, and your community of faith? How do they bring the Good News in Christ closer to the realities of our world?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.
Detail of “Descent AgiaMarina” by Anonimous – Church of Agia Marina, Kalopanagiotis http://kypros.org/Byzantine/. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Descent_AgiaMarina.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Descent_AgiaMarina.jpg