Saint Joseph of Arimathea (C)


His feast is celebrated by Eastern Rite Orthodox on July 31, Western Rite Orthodox on February 21, and Roman Catholics on March 17.

All that is known for certain concerning him is derived from the canonical Gospels. He was born at Arimathea -- hence his surname -- "a city of Judea" (Luke, xxiii, 51), which is very likely identical with Ramatha, the birthplace of the Prophet Samuel, although several scholars prefer to identify it with the town of Ramleh. He was a wealthy Israelite (Matt., xxvii, 57), "a good and a just man" (Luke, xxiii, 50), "who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God" (Mark, xv, 43). He is also called by St. Mark and by St. Luke a bouleutes, literally, "a senator", whereby is meant a member of the Sanhedrin or supreme council of the Jews. He was a disciple of Jesus, probably ever since Christ's first preaching in Judea (John, ii, 23), but he did not declare himself as such "for fear of the Jews" (John, xix, 38). On account of this secret allegiance to Jesus, he did not consent to His condemnation by the Sanhedrin (Luke, xxiii, 51), and was most likely absent from the meeting which sentenced Jesus to death (cf. Mark, xiv, 64).

The Crucifixion of the Master quickened Joseph's faith and love, and suggested to him that he should provide for Christ's burial before the Sabbath began. Unmindful therefore of all personal danger, a danger which was indeed considerable under the circumstances, he boldly requested from Pilate the Body of Jesus, and was successful in his request (Mark, xv, 43-45). Once in possession of this sacred treasure, he -- together with Nicodemus, whom his courage had likewise emboldened, and who brought abundant spices -- wrapped up Christ's Body in fine linen which he had purchased for that purpose, and grave bands, laid it in his own tomb, new and yet unused, and hewn out of a rock in a neighboring garden, and withdrew after rolling a great stone to the opening of the sepulcher (Matt., xxvii, 59, 60; Mark, xv, 46; Luke, xxiii, 53; John, xix, 38-42). Thus was fulfilled Isaiah's prediction that the grave of the Messiah would be with a rich man (Is., liii, 9).

After Christ's death, Joseph was apparently imprisoned in a rock tomb similar to the one he had given for the body of his grand-nephew. Left to starve, he was sustained for several years by the power of the Holy Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper) which provided him with fresh food and drink every morning.

The additional details which are found concerning him in the apocryphal "Acta Pilati", are probably unworthy of credence. The legend which tells of his coming to Gaul in approximately A.D. 63, and thence to Great Britain, where he is supposed to have founded the earliest Christian oratory at Glastonbury, may have a factual basis. The story of the translation of the body of Joseph of Arimathea from Jerusalem to Moyenmonstre (Diocese of Toul) is traced to sources many years after his death and may be unreliable.

Saint Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy. He is mentioned in a few times in parallel passages in Mark, Luke and John, but nothing further is Scripturally written heard about his later activities.

Apocryphal legend, however, supplies us with the rest of his story by claiming that Joseph accompanied the Apostle Philip, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene & others on a preaching mission to Gaul. Saint Lazarus and Saint Mary Magdalene stayed in Marseilles, while St. Joseph of Arimathea and his daughter Saintt Anne (or St. Anna) of Arimathea and the others traveled north. At the English Channel, St. Philip sent St. Joseph, with twelve disciples, to establish Christianity in the most far-flung corner of the Roman Empire: the Island of Britain. The year AD 63 is commonly given for this "event", with AD 37 sometimes being put forth as an alternative. It was said that St. Joseph achieved his wealth in the metals trade, and in the course of conducting his business, he probably became acquainted with Britain, at least the south-western parts of it. Cornwall was a chief mining district and well-known in the Roman empire for its tin. It is believed St. Joseph owned tin mines in Cornwall, England. (There are also legends that he was involved in the olive oil trade, and possible owned ships, warehouses, and other enterprises associated with that trade, including "plantations", but there is nothing to support these legends.) Somerset was renowned for its high quality lead.

Some have even said that Joseph was the uncle of the Virgin Mary and therefore of Jesus, and that he may have brought Jesus when He was a young boy along on one of his business trips to the island. Hence the words of Blake's famous hymn, Jerusalem:

And did those feet, in ancient time,
Walk upon England's mountains green?

It was only natural, then, that St. Joseph should have been chosen for the first mission to Britain, and appropriate that he should come first to Glastonbury, that gravitational center for legendary activity in the West Country. Local legend has it that St. Joseph sailed around Land's End and headed for his old lead mining haunts. Here his boat ran ashore in the Glastonbury Marshes and, together with his followers, he climbed a nearby hill to survey the surrounding land. Having brought with him a staff grown from Christ's Holy Crown of Thorns, he thrust it into the ground and announced that he and his twelve companions were "Weary All". The thorn staff immediately took miraculous root, and it can be seen there still on Wearyall Hill. St. Joseph met with the local ruler, Arviragus, and soon secured himself twelve hides of land (approximately 2000 acres) at Glastonbury on which to build the first monastery in Britain. From here he became the country's evangelist.

Much more was added to St. Joseph's legend during the Middle Ages. He was gradually inflated into a major saint and cult hero, as well as the supposed ancestor of many British monarchs. He is said to have brought with him to Britain a cup, said to have been used at the Last Supper and also used to catch the blood dripping from Christ as he hung on the Cross. A variation of this story is that Joseph brought with him two cruets, one containing the blood and the other, the sweat of Christ. Either of these items are known as The Holy Grail, and were the object(s) of the quests of the Knights of King Arthur's Round Table.

For Joseph hath with him
In his sarcophagus
Two cruets, white and silver,
Filled with blood and sweat
Of the prophet Jesus

One legend goes on to suggest that Joseph hid the "Grail" in Chalice Well at Glastonbury for safe-keeping. Another suggests he settled at Ynys Witrin (Glastonbury), but the Grail was taken to Corbenic where it was housed in a spectacular castle, guarded always by the Grail Kings, descendants of Joseph's daughter, St. Anna (Enygeus) and her husband, Brons.

There is a wide variance of scholarly opinion on this subject, however, and a good deal of doubt exists as to whether Joseph ever came to Britain at all, for any purpose. However, the history of the Holy Grail seems to indicate he did.

The Tradition of The Holy Grail:

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a group of monks left Glastonbury for Strata Florida Abbey, in South Wales, where they hoped to escape from the ravages of Henry VIII's commissioners. However, the Royal officials soon reached Strata Florida too and the monks were forced to flee over the hills to nearby Nanteos House. Here, the old Prior of Glastonbury became chaplain to the local lord, Mr. Powell, and the other monks became servants around the estate. So things carried on until the monks eventually started to die off. On his death-bed, the last monk revealed to Mr. Powell that his little group had brought with them, from Glastonbury, the Holy Grail which had been brought to Britain by their Abbey's founder, St. Joseph of Arimathea. This was subsequently entrusted to the Powell family "until the church shall claim her own".

Subsequent History: The "Nanteos Cup" as the supposed Grail became known remained at the Manor, attracting many pilgrims and performing many apparent miracles until 1952. All this is well documented. At this date, the last of the Powells died. The house (and the cup) were then sold to a Major Merrilees, who later moved to Herefordshire, taking the Nanteos Cup with him. It is understood that it currently resides in a bank vault somewhere. It is a small wooden vessel (5" diameter, 3" deep) in a very poor state today, due to pilgrims' biting large chunks out of it, over the years, in order to aid recovery from their ills.

There is one additional comment which must be made regarding the Holy Grail:
It may well be in the home of a private individual in Wales.

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Sources include but are not limited to: The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII, Francis E. Gigot; The Encyclopedia Britannica.