By the Rev. Fr. Panagiotes Carras
The Noble Joseph taking down Thine immaculate Body down from the Tree, and having wrapped It in pure linen and spices, laid It for burial in a new tomb. But on the third day Thou didst arise, O Lord, granting great mercy to the world. (Dismissal Hymn, St Joseph of Arimathea)
Saint Joseph of Arimathea was accounted worthy to bury the immaculate body of our True God, Jesus Christ and, after the Lord’s glorious ascension into heaven, preached the Holy Gospel in many diverse lands. Of St Joseph’s early years little is known except that he was the son of wealthy and noble parents of the Old Covenant. This pious family lived in the city of Ramah or Arimathea. As a youth Joseph was taught the sacred scriptures and knew well of what should come to pass when the Saviour and Redeemer would come into the world as foretold by the Holy Prophets. As the God-loving Joseph grew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he pondered on the prophecies. He considered the prophecy of the Holy Isaiah : The Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call His name Immanuel. (Is.7:14). And the prophecy of Micah, But you, Bethlehem, House of Ephratha, are little among the thousands of Judah, yet from you shall come forth to me Him who is to be ruler in Israel, and His going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity. (Mic.5:2).
And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counselor; and he was a good man, and a just: (The same had not consented to the counsel and deed of them;) he was of Arimathaea, a city of the Jews: who also himself waited for the kingdom of God. (Luke 23:50-51) He had the position of an honourable and respected member of the Jewish Privy Council. It was then that He Who is from eternity came unto the people of Israel performing miracles, teaching, and proclaiming the New Covenant between Himself and those who would follow Him. As the Gospel of our Lord came unto the people of Israel, Joseph wondered, Could this Jesus of Nazareth be the One foretold, the Redeemer of Israel? And as Joseph beheld Christ and His disciples and the multitudes of followers, he recalled the words of Isaiah: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. (Is.9:2-5). It was then that Joseph became a disciple of the Lord, but in secret for fear of the Jews. (John 19:38). But soon, He through Whom all things were created was betrayed and of His own Will gave Himself up for the life of the world: And they crucified Him, and parted His garments, casting lots….And it was about the sixth hour and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the Temple was rent in the midst. And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, He said, Father, unto Thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, He gave up the ghost. (Luke 23:44-46).
St Epiphanius says: “When even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathea named Joseph, and went boldly unto Pilate and begged from him the body of Jesus. A mortal went in before a mortal, asking to receive God; the God of mortals he begs; clay stands before clay so as to receive the Fashioner of all! Grass asks to receive from grass the Heavenly Fire; the miserable drop seeks to receive from a drop the whole Abyss! Who ever saw, who ever heard such a thing? A man grants to a man the Creator of men; a lawless man undertakes to surrender the Definition of he Law of lawless men; a judge deprived of judgment permits the burial of the Judge of judges Who has been judged to death.
When even was come, he says, there came a rich man named Joseph. Truly was this man rich who carried away the entire compound hypostasis of the Lord. Verily was he rich, because he received the twofold nature of Christ from Pilate. He was rich indeed, because he was accounted worthy to carry off the priceless Pearl. Truly was he rich, for he bore away the Pouch overflowing with the treasure of Divinity. And how would that man not be rich who acquired the Life and salvation of the world? How should Joseph not be rich, who received a gift Him that sustains and rules all things? When even was come for the Sun of Righteousness had then set into Hades. Wherefore there came a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea, who was a secret disciple for fear of the Jews. And there came also Nicodemus, which at first came to Jesus by night. O hidden mystery of mysteries! Two secret disciples came to conceal Jesus in a tomb, thus teaching by His concealment the mystery concealed in Hades of the God concealed in the flesh. Each one of these men surpassed the other in their affection for Christ. For Nicodemus proved his magnanimity by the myrrh and aloes, and Joseph proved worthy of praise by his daring and boldness before Pilate. For he, casting off all fear, went in unto Pilate and begged the body of Jesus. Now when he went in he acted very shrewdly so as to obtain his longed-for aim. Wherefore, he did not employ high-sounding and pompous words lest Pilate be moved to wrath and he fail in his request. Nor did he say to him, ‘Give me the body of Jesus, Who but a short time ago darkened the sun, split the rocks asunder, shook the earth, opened the sepulchres, and rent the veil of the temple!’ Nothing of the kind said he to Pilate.
But what, then? A certain pitiful plea, in every wise lowly. ‘O judge, I have come to make of thee a trifling request. Give me a dead man for burial, nay, the body of Him that was by thee condemned, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the poor, Jesus the homeless, Jesus the crucified, the naked, the common, Jesus the carpenter’s son, Jesus the bound, the shelterless, the Stranger, Who in a strange land is unknown, Jesus the contemptible, Who for all was suspended on the Cross. Give me this Stranger, for what profit to thee is the body of this Stranger? Give me this Stranger, for from afar He came to this place to save a stranger, to a dark region He descended to draw up a stranger. Give me this stranger, for He alone is a Stranger. Give me this Stranger, Whose country we know not, the strangers. Give me this Stranger, Whose Father we know not, the strangers. Give me this Stranger, Whose place and birth and ways we know not, the strangers. Give me this Stranger Who lived in a strange land a strange life and existence. Give me this Nazarite Stranger, whose generation and disposition we know not, the strangers. Give me this voluntary Stranger, Who had not where to lay His head. Give me this Stranger, Who as a homeless Stranger in a strange land was born in a manger. Give me this Stranger, Who from the very manger fled Herod as a stranger. Give me this Stranger, Who from His very swaddling bands was a stranger in Egypt, Who has no city, no village, no house, no abode, no kindred, for this Stranger is found in foreign lands with His Mother. Give me, O prince, this naked man on the Cross that I may cover Him that covered my nature’s nakedness. Give me Him that is both a dead man and God that I may shroud Him that has hidden mine iniquities. Give me, O prince, this dead man Who buried my sin in Jordan. I entreat thee for a dead man Who suffered injustice from all. Who by a friend was sold. Who by a disciple was betrayed. Who by brethren was persecuted. Who by a slave was smitten. For a dead man I intercede. Who was condemned by them that He freed from slavery. Who by them was given vinegar to drink. Who by them that He healed was wounded. Who by His own disciples was forsaken. Who of His own Mother was bereaved.For a dead man, O prince, I beseech, that homeless One Who was suspended on the Cross, for He has no father near Him upon the earth, no friend, no disciple, no kindred, no burier. Nay, He is alone, the Only-begotten of the Unique, God in the world, and none else save He.’
When these things Joseph spake to Pilate on this wise, Pilate commanded that the all-holy body of Jesus be given him. And he went to the place called Golgotha and took God in the flesh down from the Cross and laid Him on the earth, naked God in the flesh, Him that was not merely a man. Lo, He is beheld lying low, Who drew all men on high. And He for a brief time is bereft of breath, Who is the Life and Breath of all. He is seen bereft of eyes, Who created the many-eyed beings. He lies prostrate, Who is the resurrection of all. And God is slain in the flesh, Who raised up the dead. The thunder of God the Word is now silent for an instant and He is borne in the arms of men, Who holds the earth in His hand. Dost thou really, O Joseph, know Whom thou was given when thou didst ask and receive? Dost thou truly know Whom thou didst carry when thou earnest to the Cross and didst bring down Jesus? If in truth thou knowest Whom thou didst carry, thou art now verily become rich. And how is it that thou givest burial to this most awesome body of God? Praiseworthy is thine ardour, but even more praiseworthy the disposition of thy soul. For dost thou not tremble, bearing in thine arms Him before Whom the Cherubim tremble? With what fear dost thou strip that Divine flesh of the loin cloth? And how dost thou reverently restrain thine eye? Art thou not fearful when gazing upon and shrouding the nature of God’s flesh, He that surpasses nature? Tell me, O Joseph, dost thou really bury towards the East a dead man that is the Dayspring of the East? And with thy fingers dost thou close the eyes of Jesus as befits the dead, nay, of Him that with His immaculate finger opened the eyes of the blind? And dost thou bind the mouth of Him that opened the mouth of the stammerer? Dost thou lay out with thy hands Him that extended the withered hands? Or dost thou bind the feet, as befits the dead, of Him that made motionless feet to walk? Dost thou place upon a bed Him that commanded the paralytic, ‘Take up thy bed and walk’? Dost thou empty out myrrh upon the celestial Myrrh Who emptied Himself and sanctified the world? Dost thou dare to wipe that Divine side of Jesus bleeding still, the side of God Who healed the woman of an issue of blood? Dost thou wash with water God’s body which cleanses all and bestows purification? But what lamps dost thou light for the ‘true Light which enlighteneth every man’? What funeral odes dost thou chant for Him that is hymned unceasingly by all the Heavenly hosts? And dost thou weep as though He were dead that wept and raised up Lazarus, the four days dead? And dost thou bewail Him that gave joy to all and banished the sorrow of Eve?
Albeit, I bless thy hands, O Joseph, which ministered and clasped the bleeding hands and feet of Jesus’ Divine body. I bless thy hands which drew nigh to God’s bleeding side before Thomas, the believing disbeliever, the acclaimed inquisitive. I bless thy mouth filled insatiably and united to the mouth of Jesus, whence it was filled with the Holy Spirit. I bless thine eyes which thou didst press against the eyes of Jesus, whence they partook of the true light. I bless thy countenance which drew nigh to the countenance of God. I bless thy shoulders which bore the Bearer of all. I bless thy head against which Jesus, the Head of all, reclined. I bless thy hands wherewith thou didst carry Him that carries all. I bless Joseph and Nicodemus, for they replaced the Cherubim by uplifting and carrying God and, as God’s ministers, the six-winged Seraphim also, for not with wings but with a winding sheet they covered and rendered honour to the Lord. Him that the Seraphim hold in dread, the Same Joseph and Nicodemus carry upon their shoulders and all the bodiless orders stand in awe. When Joseph and Nicodemus came, the entire divine populace of angels swiftly gathered. The Cherubim run before them, the Seraphim hasten with them, the Thrones help them to carry, the Six-winged cover Him, and the Many-eyed are struck with dread seeing Jesus in the flesh bereft of vision; the Powers aid in shrouding, the Principalities offer hymns, the orders of Angels tremble, and all the hosts of the celestial ranks are stupified. And marveling they question and say one to another, ‘What fearsome thing is this? What this dread? What this trembling? What manner of deed? What is this great, strange and incomprehensible spectacle? He that as naked God on high we cannot see, the Same on earth is easily seen naked by men!’
Him before Whom the Cherubim stand with reverent fear, Joseph and Nicodemus bury fearlessly and looking upon Thee dead, stripped, and without burial, in his grief and tender compassion he (Joseph) lamented, saying : ‘Woe is me, my sweetest Jesus! When but a little while ago the sun saw Thee hanging on the Cross, it wrapped itself in darkness: the earth quaked with fear and the veil of the temple was rent in twain. And now I see Thee for my sake submitting of Thine own will to death. How shall I bury Thee, my God? How shall I wrap Thee in a winding sheet? How shall I touch Thy most pure Body with my hands? What song at Thy departure shall I sing to Thee, O compassionate Saviour? I magnify Thy sufferings; I sing the praises of Thy burial and Thy Resurrection, crying: O Lord, glory to Thee.’
And so chanting sacred hymns, Saint Joseph buried the holy Body of our Saviour. Because of the Passover there was no time to prepare a tomb for our Lord, so Saint Joseph placed our Lord’s body in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock. (Mt.27:60). The Jews, enraged by Saint Joseph’s action, threw him into a deep pit and left him to die. Through the Grace of God, he was taken up from this place and brought to Arimathea.
After the Resurrection, our Lord appeared to him and revealed to him the mystery of His Resurrection. It was after Christ’s ascension that Saint Joseph gave up all fear and boldly confessed his faith in our Lord. Even though his former friends and loved ones opposed him, he could not bear to keep silent and openly preached the mystery of the Resurrection. Finally, he was driven from his home, but he was not grieved. Instead, he took this as a sign that he should travel and enlighten those who had never heard the Holy Faith. The Holy Apostle Philip sent him with twelve followers to the Isles of Briton.
The history of the enlightenment of Britain was well known in the early Church. Tertullian (AD 155-222) wrote that Britain had already received and accepted the Gospel in his life time:
All the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons–inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.
Hippolytus (AD 170-236), considered to have been one of the most learned Christian historians, identifies the seventy whom Jesus sent in the Gospel of Saint Luke, and includes Saint Aristobulus listed in Romans 16:10 with Saint Joseph and states that he ended up becoming a Shepherd in Britain.
Eusebius, (AD 260-340) Bishop of Caesarea and father of ecclesiastical history wrote:
The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.
Saint Hilary of Poitiers (AD 300-376) also wrote that the Apostles had built churches and that the Gospel had passed into Britain. The same is said by Saint John Chrysostom (AD 347-407):
The British Isles which are beyond the sea, and which lie in the ocean, have received virtue of the Word. Churches are there found and altars erected … Though thou shouldst go to the ocean, to the British Isles, there though shouldst hear all men everywhere discoursing matters out of the scriptures, with another voice indeed, but not another faith, with a different tongue, but the same judgment.
Traveling across the perilous marshes of Somerset, the thirteen holy companions crossed the water to Glastonbury, coming at last to a hill which tradition still shows today, called Weary-All. As was the custom, the saint carried a pastoral staff of dry hawthorn. When he stopped to rest, he stuck the staff into the ground where it blossomed as a sign of God’s favour. The miraculous staff soon grew into a great tree, which continues to blossom to this day during Holy Nativity. In fact, official records show that after England adopted the Gregorian Calendar the Glastonbury Thorn continued to blossom on the Church Calendar date for Nativity.
Here at Weary-All Hill the saint’s party was met by a local chieftain, Arviragus, who, being impressed by the piety, gentleness, and meekness of Saint Joseph, donated twelve ‘hides’ of land to the group (approximately 160 acres). Here, on the Twelve Hides of Glastonbury, our holy patron sank the firm roots of Orthodox Christianity, building a church which he dedicated to the Most Holy Theotokos. St Joseph and his companions enlightened many of the Tritons and baptized large numbers of them into the Holy Church. It was here that Saint Joseph of Arimathea, gave up his soul into the hands of our Saviour. Much later in 183 A.D. another group of missionaries came to the holy site where Saint Joseph had reposed, and there occurred many miraculous deeds and mysteries of healings. Christians lived at this site as hermits until the fifth century when our holy father among the saints, Patrick of Ireland, visited Glastonbury and formed a monastery on the site. Shortly after this St David of Wales also visited this venerable place and began the building of a larger Church on the site. Glastonbury became a great place of pilgrimage for the Orthodox people of Britain. Many other saints came and dwelt on the lands where the Holy Apostolic Faith was first preached to the natives of Britain, the lands of Glastonbury, sanctified by Saint Joseph.
Glory to God for all things.