Dear Saint Joseph of Arimathea,
The most striking thing about you is that you were a man of contradictions. Yes, you were a man of faith and we know you from history (namely, the Gospels) as the person who went up to Pontius Pilate and requested permission to bury Jesus. And this you did, using your own tomb in order to facilitate a proper burial for the rabbi from Nazareth whom you followed from afar. And in doing so, your risked your safety and reputation—and particularly to your reputation, as you were a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council of elders. You did not agree with what was done regarding Jesus, as you secretly were a follower, a disciple of his. Yet, while you earnestly believed in Jesus, you kept quiet about it, which showed your contradictory nature.
The New Testament and for that matter, all of the Bible, gives us many examples of people who have faith, people who have no faith whatsoever and those who are searching for the certainty that faith promises. In your case, Saint Joseph of Arimathea, you embody two of these elements: you have faith and yet, you search for the certainty of that promise. You believe in Jesus, yet you hold back, not certain where total faith will lead. In this respect, you represent a good many people that way: we believe, we follow, but not always totally and sometimes, not always as faithfully as we ought. But just the same, you are moved to follow Jesus, even at some distance, at some remove. You are more human than you—or we—will ever know. We want to do the right thing; yet we’re not always sure of the right way of going about it—or whether we should. Thus, your—and our—contradictory nature. In other words, our humanity.
In the Gospels, you were essentially “the last man in the play,” so to speak. After all those awful events of those days which culminated in Jesus’ death, you were the one who recognized that Jesus needed a proper burial and that there was no one around to do it, and you decided that you had to perform this last act of compassion for the one who perfectly embodied it. So you took it upon yourself to see that it was done. By approaching Pontius Pilate, you did a daring thing. No doubt you were scared and unsure—especially after what had happened—but you knew you could not do otherwise. And so you went and got permission and with Nicodemus’ help (he, too, was another secret follower of Jesus), prepared Jesus’ body for burial in what would have been your own burial chamber.
You were the other Joseph in Jesus’ life, other than his earthly foster-father, who shielded Him and cared for him from His birth in Bethlehem onwards until (we must assume) Jesus was ready to assume his salvific role and for which He did for three eventful years. Legend has it that you were Jesus’ uncle or great uncle; that can never be substantiated, as there is little by way of concrete facts. And a reason for this legend is that since Joseph, Jesus’ foster-father was presumably dead himself by the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, custom required that the nearest male relative assist in the burial of the deceased, and that you were that man. Again, we do not know with exactitude, but the certain concrete fact is that you were there and you were the one who buried Jesus. And there are other legends that say that you helped bring Christianity to England and that you had something to do with the Holy Grail. Again, we do not know for certain. Yet, somehow in His designs, God placed two men named Joseph in Jesus’ life—of which you were one—at His birth and at His death, and God allowed these men to assist His Son at these times. Perhaps God wanted to point out that good and righteous people have a role to play in salvation history and that though they may be human, flawed, imperfect—or whatever—they have a part to play and God wanted it that way, and you, Joseph of Arimathea, became a part of that.
Of course, we do not know what eventually became of you, like your namesake, the other Joseph. You appeared in the Gospel narratives and did what was required of you. But when I think of you, I keep thinking about that tomb, the tomb that was originally hewed from stone that was to be your burial place. As Scripture says, you were a “rich man” and presumably, you were well cared for. It would have been interesting to know what your background was or if you yourself had a family; but as was the wont of the Gospel writers, they were silent on that point (as well as other things) and presumably, they had other, more important points to make. I often wondered what happened to that tomb after Jesus was buried there: what it ever used again, even by you?
On Good Friday and Holy Saturday, we will be thinking about that tomb that was supposed to be yours, and how, you, “the secret follower,” compassionately—and generously—allowed it to become the place for Jesus’ burial and eventual Resurrection. I cannot help but think sometimes—especially now, in this Triduum—how we need that tomb of yours. In our increasingly sorrowful world of pain and sin, we badly need to bury all those things that hinder us from a happier, fuller and more joyful life, everything from hatred to anger to greed—indeed, all those things that degrade us, yet things which we can’t seem to let go of and let die. More than anything, these things need to be wrapped in burial cloths, put deep within the tomb and have the rock rolled over them with asperity, never again to see the light of day. Saint Joseph of Arimathea, we need your prayers now. Our world is crucified by many things, and we need to find ways to overcome them. In your time and in your way, you did. Help us to realize that what entombs us is not the end—and is not final—but that there is a Resurrection beckoning us.