St Joseph of Arimathea
For all the Saints: Joseph of Arimathea
Joseph of Arimathea is a surprise on the list of British and Celtic saints, since he was a first-century Jew. By tradition, however, he was first to carry the message of Christ to the British Isles. The Gospels portray him as a secret disciple or follower of Jesus. He it was – along with Nathanael – who took Christ’s body from the cross and anointed it, wrapped it in a linen shroud, and provided the tomb for the body (Matthew 27:57-60). Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, and a person of substantial means “who was himself looking for the Kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43). His faith in the risen Christ led him to carry the message of resurrection throughout Israel. Subsequent legend has him travel to England, whence he was sent by St Philip while Mary Magdalene and Lazarus stayed in Marseilles in southern France.
Tradition says that Joseph was involved in metal trades and, as such, traveled on business to the south of England, specifically to Cornwall and Dorset which were centers of the iron industry 2000 years ago. Joseph supposedly founded Glastonbury Abbey sometime around 63, having run aground after rounding Land’s End at a hill that is known to this day as Wearyall, after the weariness of all his shipmates.
Joseph is also connected with legends of the Holy Grail and thus, by association, with the legendary King Arthur and kingship in general in England.
The English mystic, artist, and poet William Blake mused on the legend that Joseph was Jesus’ uncle, who brought him on trips to Glastonbury. Blake’s lines recall this:
And did those feet, in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
What are we to make of these legends?
Like all legends they wrap around a nugget of truth. We know that the Christian faith got to England very early, a marvelous feat in itself given the distances people had to travel and the means by which they traveled in those ancient times. Perhaps there is more here than piety at work; Joseph may well have set foot on England.
Orthodox Christians remember Joseph of Arimathea at each Divine Liturgy as the gifts are brought to the altar in the hymn, “Noble Joseph,” which is spoken by the priest as the gifts are placed on the altar and veiled. Joseph of Arimathea is commemorated in the East on July 31, in the West on March 17.