All four Gospels relate the story of Joseph of Arimathea, who provided a tomb for the body of Christ following the Crucifixion. Joseph is variously described as a rich man, a counsellor, and as a follower of Christ. The picture we get is of one who was highly regarded in the Jewish community (some say that a “counsellor” was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court of justice which had condemned Jesus and brought Him to Pilate). He was no doubt a successful merchant who had achieved prosperity.
St. Mark describes Joseph as one who was searching for the kingdom of God. He had obviously been observing Jesus, hearing His teachings and pondering whether He was the longed-for Messiah. Like Nicodemus, the other Jewish leader described in the Gospels as a secret follower of Christ and the one who aided Joseph in caring for the body of Jesus, Joseph was finally moved to commit himself openly as a follower of Christ.
Even though he was not a relative of Jesus, as would have been the custom, Joseph courageously went to Pilate and asked permission to take the body of Jesus for burial. He and Nicodemus took the crucified Lord to Joseph’s own family tomb, which was carved into the rock in a garden on his property. Just as the newborn Jesus had been laid in a manger in a cave in Bethlehem, now at the end of His earthly life, Jesus was laid on a stone slab in a cave outside Jerusalem.
The Biblical story of Joseph ends here, but many of the Fathers of the Church such as St. Irenaeus (125-189) and St. Hilary of Poitiers (300-367) tell us that Joseph continued to bear witness to the truth that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of the Jewish prophecies after the death and Resurrection of the Lord. St. John Chrysostom (347-407) said that he was one of the Seventy Apostles who were sent out on missionary journeys to spread the Gospel further. It is believed that he helped to found the Church in the city of Lydda.
The Gospel of Nicodemus, an apocryphal writing of the first century, tells of Joseph confronting the Jewish leaders, being imprisoned by them and escaping miraculously after a vision of Christ. Legends about St. Joseph of Arimathea in Britain began early and continue to this day. The story that he took the child Jesus and his mother to England, made famous by the poet William Blake and set to music by Sir Hubert Parry, stirs the heart of any Anglophile! Orthodox lives of the saints agree that Joseph may very well have traveled to England to preach Christianity and early historians such as Hippolytus (170-236), Tertullian (155-222), and Eusebius (260-340), wrote that Christianity had reached the shores of that far-away island in their time.
The Church honors the memory of the courageous Joseph of Arimathea on February 22 (July 31 on the Eastern rite calendar). May we, like St. Joseph, be courageous in declaring that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Savior of the world.