St. Joseph of Arimathaea
Near my home is a graveyard, and I ride my bike along its shady lanes often to get from my home to my studio. As in all graveyards, there are certain large plots of land belonging to specific families. A husband and wife will be interred side by side surrounded by the graves of their children, and other close relatives will rest nearby surrounded by their own offspring. It’s a place where descendents might really feel the connections they have through the ages with blood relatives who have gone before.
Today is the feast day of Joseph of Arimathaea. You undoubtedly remember this fellow. He was the one who, after the crucifixion, asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and in those few hours between Jesus’ death and the beginning of the Sabbath, got it stowed away. The tomb from which Jesus rose, the hollow in the hillside with the roll-away stone door – that belonged to him.
I’ve never spent much time with Joseph’s story. I’ve always thought of him as just a rich man who had the right connections and the resources to provide the staging, as it were, for the resurrection. But look at what he did.
He had a burial place in a garden on his estate. A garden in that hot, arid country, a little paradise for Joseph and his family, this was perhaps the spot where his ancestors were laid to rest. Or maybe Joseph planned to become the first of the ancestors honored by subsequent generations coming to this little oasis. In either case it was the place where family would remember family, honor the dead of their bloodline and feel connected.
He gave the tomb he had made for himself to Jesus. He probably had it in mind that he’d hollow out another for himself nearby. But even so, what he did was bring Jesus, this poor holy man of questionable lineage, right into the heart of his family, forever. He would undoubtedly have earned the scorn and derision of his peers for having done this, but he did it anyway. He provided a place for Jesus and those who loved him. He offered honor and dignity on the heels of shame and mortification. He offered belonging on the heels of rejection. He believed his graveyard would hereafter be the resting place for not only him and his kin, but for this stranger.
Of course it didn’t work out that way. Jesus didn’t remain in that tomb for very long. We all celebrate that fact, but what would Joseph of Arimathaea have thought of it? His gift was rejected.
Sometimes it is in the rejection of our biggest gifts, our most generous sacrifices, that we learn the most. If it had been me, the rejection of my tomb would have eventually brought the whole issue of tombs with special gardens, the issue of making kingdoms in this world, up for my examination. What was I doing, spending so much of my resources making a place where my descendents would remember me? Maybe there was a better use for my wealth, not to mention my talents and creativity?
Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathaea, after the resurrection, went to Cornwall, to England. It was believed that his wealth came from tin mines there. When he went he brought with him the story of Jesus. He was responsible for planting Christianity on British soil. The Holy Grail was involved. And another story tells of how he drove his staff into the ground in Glastonbury, and it took root and blossomed into a thorn tree there, which for centuries flowered every year on Christmas Day.
And, incidentally, he became a saint, remembered and honored by the Christian world, with his very own feast day and everything. He was claimed by a pretty big family.
God of wanderers and strangers, look with favor on all my generous sacrifices, even as you push me beyond them into deeper relationship with you and your people. In the name of Jesus Christ, the Tombless One. Amen.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado