According to the Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews in Judaea, who was a secret disciple of Jesus. When the Lord’s other disciples were hiding for fear of the authorities, it was he who boldly approached Pontius Pilate to ask for the Lord’s body, in order properly to bury it according to the practices of Jewish piety. The Gospels associate Joseph with Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin who was a secret disciple of the Lord, and who helped Joseph prepare Jesus’ body for burial. They reverently laid his body Joseph’s own tomb, saving it from further desecration.
We know nothing else about these two men and their place in the early Christian community after the Lord’s resurrection. Later legends developed about Joseph of Arimathaea, one of the most enduring and attractive of which is the story of his safekeeping of the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper in the institution of the Holy Eucharist. According to a legend that cannot be dated to earlier than the thirteenth century, Joseph brought the Grail to Glastonbury in Britain, founded a church there and deposited the Grail in the church. Legend also holds that he drove his walking staff into the ground, from which the Glastonbury thorn grew and blossomed. While these and other legends obtain wide credence, and were enlarged in later centuries by the legend of Joseph’s having brought the boy Jesus with him to Britain on one of his trade journeys as a tin merchant, they are not based on any historical fact.
Our remembrance of Joseph of Arimathaea is not based on these legends, though, however attactive they may be. We rightly commemorate him for his boldness, piety, and generosity in seeing the Lord properly buried after his crucifixion.
Merciful God, whose servant Joseph of Arimathaea with reverence and godly fear prepared the body of our Lord and Savior for burial, and laid it in his own tomb: Grant to us, your faithful people, grace and courage to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The icon of Saint Joseph of Arimathaea is taken from Aidan Hart’s gallery of icons and is reproduced here with his generous permission.