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 timeWalk 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)
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.