Joseph of Arimathaea and Jesus in England

St Joseph of Arimathea’s White-Thorn tree at Glastenbury

Today, August 1, the Episcopal Church commemorates St. Joseph of Arimathea, whom the Gospels all record begged the body of Jesus, which he then laid in a new tomb (which Matthew says was his own tomb) (his traditional day in the Roman calendar had been March 17, but it was moved to August 31 and joined to St. Nicodemus). Joseph has a peculiar place in the mythology of England, famously set in verse by William Blake in “Jerusalem” (see below). Sir Hubert Perry, the great English composer, set the text to music in 1916. George V is said to have preferred the hymn to “God Save the King” and because of this it has taken on something of an unofficial status as England’s national anthem (though it appears that Parliament has never settled the question and thus, officially, there is no national anthem). One version here from the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton is noteworthy if only because Elton John doesn’t seem to know the words (see 0.50 minutes) and another from the Last Night of the Proms 2012 (when the piece is always performed at the Royal Albert Hall).

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.
~ William Blake (1757–1827)
As told by James Kiefer, the legend that developed claimed “that Joseph was a distant relative of the family of Jesus; that he derived his wealth from tin mines in Cornwall, which he visited from time to time; and that Jesus as a teen-ager accompanied Joseph on one such visit.” Hence, Blake’s poem. (For one of the many texts that tell this tale, see this one from c. 1770).
Kiefer goes on: “After the Crucifixion, we are told, Joseph returned to Cornwall, bringing the chalice of the Last Supper, known as the Holy Grail. Reaching Glastonbury, he planted his staff, which took root and blossomed into a thorn tree. The Grail was hidden, and part of the great national epic (“the matter of Britain”) deals with the unsuccessful quest of the knights of King Arthur to find the Grail. The Thorn Tree remained at Glastonbury, flowering every year on Christmas day, and King Charles I baited the Roman Catholic chaplain of his queen by pointing out that, although Pope Gregory had proclaimed a reform of the calendar, the Glastonbury Thorn ignored the Pope’s decree and continued to blossom on Christmas Day according to the Old Calendar. The Thorn was cut down by one of Cromwell’s soldiers on the grounds that it was a relic of superstition, and it is said that as it fell, its thorns blinded the axeman in one eye. A tree allegedly grown from a cutting from the original Thorn survives today in Glastonbury (and trees propagated from it stand on the grounds of the Cathedral in Washington, DC, and presumably elsewhere) and leaves from it are sold in all the tourist shops in Glastonbury.
Has the Glastonbury legend any basis at all in history? Two facts and some speculations follow: Tin, an essential ingredient of bronze, was highly valued in ancient times, and Phoenician ships imported tin from Cornwall. It is a pretty safe guess that in the first century the investors who owned shares in the Cornwall tin trade included at least a few Jewish Christians.
Christianity gained a foothold in Britain very early, probably earlier than in Gaul. It may have been brought there by the traffic of the Cornwall tin trade. If so, then the early British Christians would have a tradition that they had been evangelized by a wealthy Jewish Christian. If they had forgotten his name, it would be natural to consult the Scriptures to see what mention was made of early wealthy Jewish converts. Joseph and Barnabas are almost the only ones named, and much of the life of Barnabas is already accounted for by the book of Acts, which makes him an unsatisfactory candidate. Hence, those who do not like to be vague would say, not, “We were evangelized by some wealthy Jewish Christian whose name we have forgotten,” but, “We were evangelized by Joseph of Arimathaea.” A summary of the some of the textual evidence for the legends can be found here.

Despite Dan Brown’s use of the complex legends surrounding Joseph and the Grail, this saint is worth our devotion for at least two reasons. First, Joseph’s relatively small but critical place in the paschal mystery is a reminder of the cooperation that Jesus required from those around him for the mystery of salvation to take place. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Thus, even in death, the poverty of Jesus was acute and he had to be the recipient of generosity in order that the power of God might be made manifest, that the stone in front of the tomb would be rolled away, that death might be undone, the devil defeated, and that the place of his burial would be found empty. Thus, the mystery of salvation in one that God has always ordained in one that requires our cooperation.The other aspect of St. Josephs’ story, is the need in which the Church always stands of benefactors. Not only is such giving part and parcel of Christian discipleship, the wealthy may well stand in special need of the sort of giving that is costly in order to thread the eye of the needle. Thus, this day stand as an opportunity for those who know great means to make those effective for good of the Gospel and the salvation of the world.

St. Joseph of Arimathaea, ora pro nobis.

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9 comments

  1. Perhaps a related tradition is that of “British Israelitism”, which holds that the people of Britain are in fact the lost ten tribes of Israel, and that the British monarchy are rulers by divine right. An internet search will bring up large quantities of coverage. This is a very brief summary.
    Another strand of stories tell that the Prophet Jeremiah, when taken to Egypt (Jeremiah 43:4-7), brought with him the Ark of the Covenant and “Jacob’s Pillow”, the stone on which Jacob laid his head to sleep (Genesis 28). From there Jeremiah went to Spain, and from there to Ireland, where he died. Jeremiah’s tomb is said to be at Loughcrew in Co Meath among a group of megalithic cairns. The Ark of the Covenant was buried at Tara, the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland, and Jacob’s Pillow was set up there as the coronation stone of the kings of Ireland, and was known as the “Lia Fail”, the Stone of Destiny.
    From there, the coronation stone was brought to what we now know as western Scotland, but was then the kingdom of Dal Riada which included north-east Ireland and western Scotland; it was placed at the Abbey of Scone. When eventually the kingdoms of England and Scotland were merged, the stone became the Coronation Stone of the monarchs of England. At the coronation of a new monarch, the stone is taken from Scone and placed under the throne for the coronation.
    A group of British Israelites went digging (nor a real archaeological dig) at Tara 1899-1902, searching for the Ark of the Covenant.
    Perhaps, like William Blake’s poem, these stories arise from a desire to have close direct connection with the divine plan. The Mormon account that Jesus visited North America could come within the same trend. Also the story that Mary Magdalen’s tomb is in France.

  2. I actually heard Jerusalem sung in a TV program. I can’t recall the name of the program right now, but it was being sung at a military banquet, and I thought it was stirring and interesting – as good as I Vow to Thee – so I did a little research and I thought it was an interesting idea and basically what is outlined here. I also thought there must be enough Celtic blood running through English veins that they have a bit of blarney about them. 🙂

    1. Interesting to note that its initial popularity in England was as a womens’ suffrage hymn during World War I….

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post. You didn’t mention that the third quatrain provided the title for the 1981 Academy Award-winning movie about a couple of Olympic runners. But you didn’t have to for anyone who was around then because the theme became an ear worm. And I doubt anyone else would care.
    “God Save the Queen” is the British national (or royal) anthem, but I’ve heard “Jerusalem” proposed for England, as “Scotland the Brave” (or maybe “The Flower of Scotland”) is for Scotland.

    1. The “Chariots of Fire” theme was composed by Vangelis. That was an earworm all right. It does not resemble the music by Parry to Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time.”

  4. This is sometimes chosen for weddings and funerals – by those who never go to church.
    When playing it I have to try very hard to suppress the urge to say “probably not” after the first two lines.

    1. It does seem a very odd choice for either of those occasions. I wonder if they confuse it with “The Holy City,” music by Stephen Adams; words by Frederick E. Weatherly , whose choruses begin, “Jerusalem! Jerusalem!” It could work at a funeral, with its emphasis on the heavenly Jerusalem.

      1. No, I am sure they choose it because they know virtually no hymns at all.
        The other regular choice in these circumstances is “All things bright and beatiful,” a childrens’ hymn.
        It is s sign of how remote the church (and religion in general) is from vast swathes of the population in the UK.

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