When I discovered reading, I quickly ran out of my own books so I rummaged through my brother’s meager library (he wasn’t much of a reader). I discovered the Hardy Boys, Robin Hood and King Arthur and his court. These were not comic books but real books where paragraphs were more than one sentence long, and the language was somewhat more grown up. I ate them up. Somehow the ones that stuck with me were book with the Arthurian legends which was written mainly for boys but which were about chivalry and the rescue of maidens, something every girl could dream about.
As I got older I learned there was more to this King Arthur story than what I had read as a child. I had read about Merlin and Guinevere and Lancelot and the Lady of the Lake, which were all very well and good, and I also read about the Grail, supposedly the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. Then I found Joseph of Arimathea and his connection with whole wonderful tale.
Joseph is said to have been an uncle of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and therefore a kinsman of Jesus himself. We don’t hear about him in the Gospels until Jesus is crucified when Joseph appeared, asking the authorities for Jesus’s body. He took the corpse to his own brand-new tomb where Jesus would lie. Most crucified criminals were left hanging on their places of execution until they had become nothing but bones as an example to the people of the price of criminal behavior. If Joseph were a kinsman, it would have made sense for him to ask to bury Jesus for the family’s sake, if nothing else. Then, having buried Jesus, Joseph disappeared from the scene and is not heard from again. That’s where legend takes over.
Legends are like midrash; A bare-bones story is fleshed out with details and episodes to make the tale more complete and to answer possible questions. According to the legend, Joseph had interests in some British tin mines in Cornwall. He made periodic trips back and forth from to check on those interests. It said that on at least one journey he took his great nephew Jesus along with him, a possible journey William Blake commemorated in his poem called “Jerusalem.”
Those who were crucified were often left on the instrument of their death, being food for scavenger birds and whims of the weather. Was Joseph a known Christian? If so, he risked his reputation and possibly even his life to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus so quickly. Now if he were a relative, especially one of some standing, it might have been easier for him than it would have been for Jesus’s family who were relative unknowns. However it happened, after his good deed, Joseph disappeared from the story but legends went on.
It said that Joseph left Jerusalem on a ship taking with him and some followers, possibly even Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene’s story is that she disembarked in France, and lived out her life there where she was revered, as was her daughter.
Joseph continued his journey and landed in Cornwall. He disembarked at a place close to what we now call Glastonbury, then known as Avalon. Joseph pushed his staff into the ground and from it rose a thorn tree, like the tree that had produced the materials used to make the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear. The tree itself grew and flourished and bloomed each Christmas for 2,000 years, enduring several attempts to destroy it until it was chopped down and the limbs strewn about by person or persons unknown in 1991. A rare variety, the only way to propagate it was by cuttings. Some of these have been successfully raised, flourishing not only around Glastonbury but in our own country where a Glastonbury Thorn tree grows on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington DC.
Another part of the legend of Joseph is that he had brought the Holy Grail, the chalice of Jesus, when he came to Cornwall. Joseph hid it, and people have been looking for that particular treasure ever since. One of the sights in Glastonbury is called Joseph’s Well where the Grail was supposedly hidden. Did Joseph really bring the chalice with him when he left Jerusalem? Was it even a chalice? Some claims are made that the Grail was actually the daughter of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, while others say it was just a plain wooden cup which has probably disintegrated by now. Yet others think of it as a finely wrought gold or silver vessel, suitable for such an important event as the Last Supper. King Arthur’s knights were searching for the Grail as sacred quests, journeys of faith in search of the holiest thing in the world and which only the purest and bravest could find.
What I learned from Joseph is the value of perhaps not loudly proclaiming that you are a Christian or a follower of Christ, but rather by actions doing the thing that would be most pleasing to God. I still keep coming back to the thought of Joseph’s risk in asking for the body of Jesus. To even claim the body, much less be able to bury it, was an act of kindness, and also, I believe to bring peace to the family as well as to honor someone he had come to love respect and follow in his own life.
Joseph of Arimathea is one of my favorite saints. He didn’t look for a place of glory, at least in the story he didn’t, and when he went back to Cornwall, if he did go back there, he very possibly became one of the founders of Christianity in Britain. Where the Roman Empire went during the time of Jesus’ ministry and even after his death, Christianity went along with the army and the traders. The isolated Christians became small communities and the small communities became towns and cities as time went by. Joseph could have begun the process in Glastonbury which ended up with an abbey known in the time of the Arthurian legends, but which was destroyed later. Some ruins still remain, reminders of those ancient times which, as in the words to first stanza of “Jerusalem” reads:
And did those feet in ancient times,
Walk on England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
It’s something to think about. It is also something to remember, when it comes time to take a risk in a good cause. It doesn’t have to be a grand showy thing, but it does require some courage and humility. No armor or magical swords are needed either.
Wikimedia image: attributed to a monk from the Brotherhood of St. Seraphim of Sarov.