Believing Thomas

©2002 By Thomas H. Peterson All Rights Reserved

We Americans (even the poorest of us) are extremely wealthy by Biblical standards. So even though I am not wealthy by American standards, I always shudder when I read the scriptural passage about how difficult it will be for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. One of the early Christians who has always given me some comfort is Joseph of Arimathæa. Some have been of the opinion that he, like Nicodemus, showed no great courage in continuing as a member of the Jewish elite while keeping his belief in the teachings of Jesus secret. I believe, however, that it took great bravery in the context of Christ’s death, with all his other followers cowering or running away, for Joseph to request from Pilate the Lord’s body and the right to inter it in Joseph’s own tomb.

To the disciples it must have seemed that the wonderful faith they had experienced was at an end. It must surely have been dangerous to be counted as one of the followers of this Galilean who had incurred the wrath of the Jewish authorities great enough to end in ignominious crucifixion. Nevertheless, this righteous rich man took the risk and, with the apparent help of Nicodemus, retrieved the body of Jesus and placed it in Joseph’s own burial place. As we lectors say in our church service, here ends the reading. From this point on the story of Joseph is essentially legend, but fascinating nonetheless.

Joseph was supposedly the owner of Cornish tin mines which were the source of his great wealth—tin was a crucial part of the alloys used in bronze metals. After the Resurrection of our Lord, Joseph may have returned to England with the Holy Grail, the very cup used at the Last Supper. He reportedly founded an abbey at Glastonbury. The tale goes that there he thrust his staff into the ground and it miraculously grew into a thorn tree which flowered on Christmas Eve.

The legendary knights of King Arthur’s court undertook an unsuccessful search for the Holy Grail which somehow got lost after making it to Glastonbury. There is still an abbey at Glastonbury and there are still trees growing from cuttings from the original thorn tree there. (See below for the Web site where you can view pictures of them.) One source notes that Oliver Cromwell’s followers, though doubting the origin of the Glastonbury thorn tree, took no chances and cut the tree down. According to legend, a thorn falling from the tree blinded the ax wielder in one eye.

If the story of Joseph’s founding the abbey is true, then Christianity may have arrived in England before it hit France or Spain. In any event, Joseph of Arimathæa is honored in the Roman Catholic Church on March 17, but in the Greek Orthodox and Episcopal churches on July 31. He is considered to be the patron saint of tin miners, cemetery keepers, pallbearers and undertakers. +

Sources: All four Gospels; James Kiefer at; Brightest and Best by Sam Portaro, Cowley Publications, 1998; Catholic Encyclopedia; and Saints Preserve Us! by Sean Kelly & Rosemary Rogers, Random House, 1998. For the picture of Glastonbury Abbey with one of the thorn trees, see Joseph of Arimathaea: Biblical and Legendary Accounts by Robert Jones, at HYPERLINK "" \t "_blank"

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