Today is the feast of my patron saint, Joseph of Arimathea. The cover of this past Sunday's bulletin featured an icon of St. Joseph that I had never seen before. He stands before Pilate, requesting the body of Christ, while a soldier looks on. (I could not find this icon on-line, but fortunately I have my digital camera handy!) Here is the story from the back of the bulletin:
While we usually think of him mainly when we observe our Lord's Passion, JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA is actually remembered by our Holy Orthodox Church on July 31. During the time of Christ, he was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin – the supreme religious court for the Jews of that era. Yet he was much more than this: he was a secret follower of Jesus who ". . . was searching for the kingdom of God." (Mark 15:43) A man of great material means, Joseph was a well-respected man in the community. His repuation, no doubt, enabled him to boldly approach Pilate and ask for the body of Christ, so that the Crucified Savior could be given a proper burial, according to the prescriptions of the Hebrew Law. Yes, he would have it buried in his own new tomb, hewn out of a rock. It is said that this act of kindness infuriated the Jews, who had him cast into prison. Tradition tells us that the Risen Lord appeared to him so that he would have first-hand knowledge of the Resurrection.
Upon his release from prison, Joseph was exiled from his homeland of Judea. He dedicated the rest of his life to preaching the Gospel, joining the Apostle Philip on a missionary journey that took them to the coast of Europe. Joseph is thought to have been responsible for bringing the Good News about Christ to the inhabitants of present-day England, winning many converts there. Joseph of Arimathea is considered to be a saint by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Legends and myths abound concerning this saintly man, including connections with the Holy Grail and King Arthur! We remember him, however, primarily for his pious gesture of burying Christ, for which we will forever ascribe the word "noble" to his name.
When Joseph went before Pilate to ask for the body, Pilate promptly granted his request. Pilate, who had not wanted to execute Jesus in the first place, had no reason to withhold the body. He might even have taken pleasure in the thought that it would annoy the Jews! But what about Joseph – did he guess the punishment that would follow from his pious duty?
This telling of the story of Joseph reminded me of Sophocles' play, Antigone. The heroine's brothers, joint heirs to the throne of Thebes, had quarreled, and one had expelled the other, who then returned at the head of an Argive army to regain the throne. They both fell in the ensuing battle. As the play begins, King Creon has decreed that Eteocles, who died defending Thebes, should receive full honors, while his brother Polynices was not to be buried – upon pain of death. Antigone promptly defied the king's command, covering Polynices with a layer of dirt. Knowing the penalty under earthly law, she yet obeyed the unwritten law of heaven, showing her brother the honor due to the dead. For her choice, she was sentenced to be buried alive – sealed in a cave. The citizens secretly honored Antigone for doing what was right and customary, but they would not contradict the king in public. The blind prophet Tiresias ultimately persuaded Creon of his sin, but it was too late: Antigone had already committed suicide. Upon finding her dead, her lover Haemon, Creon's son, also killed himself, followed by his mother Eurydice. (This is a tragedy, after all.)
Euripides' earlier version of the story, now lost, is said to have had a happy ending: the calamity was averted by the intercession of Dionysus and was followed by the marriage of Antigone and Haemon.
According to legend, Joseph was a well-traveled merchant. It is possible that he could have heard a version of the Greek legend in his travels. If so, he might have imagined the risk he was taking in defying the consensus of the Jewish rulers in order to obey the Jewish law regarding burial of the dead. Just as Antigone was sealed in the cave, Joseph was sealed in a prison cell.
Unlike Antigone, however, Joseph did not yield to despair. When the gods intervened for Antigone, in the person of Tiresias, she had already given up hope. According to Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathe, Joseph was fed during his imprisonment by daily appearances of the Holy Grail, which sustained his life and his hope. But according to the Gospel of Nicodemus (which was probably the source of elements of Joseph's story related in Sunday's bulletin), during his first night in prison Joseph was visited by Christ himself, who transported him home to Arimathea.
Joseph had already proven himself the sort of person who does not give in to despair. When all of the disciples besides John were in hiding, Joseph of Arimathea was the one who retained the presence of mind and the courage to attend to the immediate need of Jesus' burial.