St. Joseph of Arimathea
Now we could talk about the apocryphal 5th century A.D. writing entitled The Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea or even the myth that the Arthurian Quest for the Holy Grail is rooted with Saint Joseph or (perhaps best of all) we could talk about the legend that He was the Apostle to Britain where he allegedly came shortly after Christ’s Ascension and in Glastonbury constructed a mud and twig Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary where, shoving his walking stick in the ground, unwittingly planted a Palestinian Hawthorn tree that to this day lives despite countless attempts by desperate miscreants to destroy it. But we will save these exciting topics for future years. Today, a brief foray into more mundane material.
Saint Joseph of Arimathea makes an appearance in all four Gospels but only at the very end of each. From the Gospels, we learn that:
- He was a member of the Sanhedrin which (for a little background) was the supreme council of the Jews made up of 71 members including the Temple high priest. Its members were either Pharisees or Sadducees; our Saint Joseph was clearly a Pharisee because he believed in the resurrection of the dead – the Sadducees were unanimously opposed to Christ because of His teachings on the resurrection.
- He was a “good and righteous man” Saint Luke tells us (Lk 23:50), and Saint Mark says he was a man “who was…looking for the kingdom of God” (Mk 15:43).
- He begged to take possession of the lifeless Body of Jesus from Pilate.
- He bound the Lord’s Body in linen clothes (i.e. more than one piece of cloth – the body shroud, the napkin which covered the head and the strips to bind it all together) which he purchased along with the traditional embalming spices.
- With Saint Nicodemus, he carried Our Lord’s Body to its burying place. And…
- While the Blessed Virgin Mary watched, he laid Our Lord’s Body in a tomb which Saint Joseph had previously purchased to be his own burial place.
Saint Joseph appears at this pivotal point in Our Lord’s sojourn among us when there was no one else to care for Him. Our Lord’s Body hung lifeless upon the Cross and would have, in traditional Roman fashion, been left to hang for the birds to pick at or even be cast into a ditch for the vermin to devour. But Joseph’s standing as an important figure in Jerusalem as well as his wealth put him in the unique position to obtain and care for Our Lord’s Body and save it from further indignities. As Mary cooperated with Our Lord’s Incarnation, and Saint Joseph (her spouse) saw to His protection during childhood, so later Pontius Pilate presided over Christ’s Passion, and finally Saint Joseph undertook the duty of His burial. God provided the unique person suited for these pivotal moments in Our Lord’s mission – some for good, some for bad.
At some point after Christ’s public ministry began, Saint Joseph became a secret disciple; and while he did not confess the Messiah openly, he kept himself from complicity in the many conspiracies of the Jewish elite; and Saint Luke tells us he did “not consent to the purpose and deed” of the Sanhedrin in sentencing Jesus to death (Lk 23:51). For fear of them, however, he did not openly profess his affection and sympathy for Christ; until finally, because of the enormity and injustice of the phony arrest, trial and condemnation of Jesus which culminated in his crucifixion, he was compelled to action.
It’s not so hard to understand his situation, it’s not too far off from what we see today and throughout the life of the Church. We all know those who believe and profess openly from the moment they hear, as well as those who only after much hesitation and difficulty came to express their secretly held conviction. We have all read of the Christian Martyr who made his profession because of the heroic courage of other Christians in facing their own martyrdom – Saint Alban, England’s protomartyr comes to mind. It took Our Lord’s dead Body on the Cross for Joseph to finally snap out of his “in the shadows” belief.
One can see how our patron Saint became intrinsically tied to England – he embodied the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mentality, which spirit was immortalized by William Blake in his poem “Jerusalem.” The poem presupposes the legend that Christ was brought to England by Saint Joseph which might help explain some of what Our Lord was up to between the ages of twelve and thirty.
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
Saint Joseph’s lifelong dealings with the chief men in Jerusalem did not reveal all that he truly was; only at the Cross were his mature qualities disclosed – his nobility, courage and faith. How many pass a quiet life among us, who little know the full capacity of their ability to love God, waiting for a catalyzing agent to awaken that love? I believe it is the case for each of us that God provides some event (maybe, in His mercy, more than one) that can awaken our hearts to love Him as we ought – usually something unpleasant, something painful, something terminal, but not always.
Our Mother, the Church, calls us all to perpetual conversion of heart, soul and mind. Saint Joseph’s moment was the occasion of Our Lord’s lifeless Body helplessly hanging on the Cross. What might ours be?