Sacred Chalice, Blooming Staff: The Legend of the Glastonbury Thorn

     Although the exact date is unknown, Christianity was most likely introduced into the British Isles some time during the first century. This definitive event in the history of Europe is often associated with Joseph of Arimathea, who makes an all-too-brief appearance in the Gospel Accounts as the member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who obtains permission from the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate to take Christ’s body down from the cross and gives him a decent burial in a new tomb hewn out of rock. It is this fleeting glimpse of the man that has inspired the most intense curiosity, and myths aplenty have sprung up to fill in the gaps with regards to his identity and life’s story. 

     One pious legend has it that Joseph was the younger brother of St. Joachim, the husband of St. Anne and father of the Blessed Virgin Mary. If so, this would also have made him the uncle of Mary and the great-uncle of Jesus. If true, this might explain a great deal about why he would take it upon himself to care for the body of the crucified carpenter, even though such a move might have jeopardized his position among the Sanhedrin who had sentenced Christ to death. 

     But prior to these momentous events, Joseph was said to have amassed a small fortune as a merchant under the employ of the Roman government, using his fleet of ships to carry lead and tin from Cornwall to Phoenicia and other trading centers throughout the Roman Empire. Making regularly ventures to Britain would have possibly enabled him to become familiar with the beliefs, customs, and way of life of the Celtic peoples inhabiting the western Isles. 

     Living in Marmorica, Egypt, for a time, he eventually returned to his homeland of Judea and settled in the town of Arimathea, eight miles north of Jerusalem. This would have been a decision most likely based upon the close proximity to the Holy City which he would have had to visit regularly as a voting member of Sanhedrin and a pillar of Judaism’s religious leadership. 

    The next phase of the legend deals with Joseph’s journeys abroad with the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child. These tales maintain that Joseph went on his travels once again…but this time accompanied by family. It is presupposed that St. Joseph the Carpenter had already died, and Joseph of Arimathea made the decision to take his niece and teenaged grand-nephew under his wing. Hence, when he returned to the British Isles on a tin-trading mission, Jesus and Mary traveled with him. Settling on the shores of Cornwall in a waddle hut that the Blessed Mother helped build with her own hands, the three of them eased into an intermediate period of life before the ministry of Christ could begin. 

     While there, the youthful Jesus was said to have encountered the Celtic Druids schooled in the “oak wisdom” of their native spirituality, and proceeded to astound them with his depth of understanding just as he had astounded the Jewish priests in the Temple of Jerusalem when he went missing for three days at age 12. After long exchanges with him, they proceeded to declare him as “Arch-Druid” (meaning, in their way, one who had achieved the greatest level of spiritual enlightenment and connectivity with the divine) and, like the Zoroastrian Magi who came to pay him homage at his birth, they foretold that greatness was in him and would come through him. 

     Fact or fiction, these legends died hard in the villages of Cornwall. Well into the 19th century, the locals maintained that the holy visitors had indeed pitched camp on their shores and blessed the rocks around them. When striking ore, it was also customary for Cornish miners to cry out the traditional signal: “St. Joseph was a tinner!” 

     These traditions are vaguely alluded to in the medieval English carol, “I Saw Three Ships”, which depicts Christ and the blessed Virgin traveling by ship: 

I saw three ships come sailing in

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day,

I saw three ships come sailing in

On Christmas Day in the morning

 

And what was in those ships all three

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?

And what was in those ships all three

On Christmas Day in the morning?

 

Our Saviour Christ and His Lady

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day,

Our Saviour Christ and His Lady

On Christmas Day in the morning

 

   William Blake, the eighteenth century poet and mystic who spent much time in Cornwall as a boy was also inspired by the legends and integrated them into his inspirational hymn, “Jerusalem”: 

And did those feet in ancient times

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the Holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those dark, satanic mills?

 

Bring me my bow of burning gold;

Bring me my arrows of desire;

Bring me my spear; oh, clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!

I shall not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hands

Till we have builded Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land

   Whether or not Jesus and Mary ever did in pre-Roman Britain, Joseph of Arimathea’s appearance on the British scene is certainly not an impossibility. The Romans did carry on a lively trade with the Britons long before the actual Roman conquest and colonization of Britannia, and Jewish merchants were not uncommon within the economically prosperous network of Pax Romana 

    Years later on that fateful Holy Week, some speculate that Joseph may have been the custodian of the Upper Room in which Jesus and the Apostles celebrated the Last Supper. It is also theorized that his table-cloth from the Last Supper was used to wrap Christ’s body in, which ultimately became known as the Shroud of Turin. Small pieces of evidence supporting this claim include the fact that the Shroud is made of different material than usually used for Jewish burial rites, and it has wine stains on it that contrast with the marking of blood. Because of the Sabbath, it may have been impossible to purchase anything else fitting for burial. 

   As a result of these merciful gestures on behalf of his late kinsman, Joseph was said to have suffered persecuted at the hands of the Sanhedrin he had once served as a respected member. Legend holds that he was even imprisoned by them for sympathizing with the blasphemer, only to be miraculously released by Christ on the eve of his Resurrection. But then Pontius Pilate launched a persecution of those claiming Christ had risen in the wake of these tumultuous events, and Joseph was forced to flee Jerusalem. 

   He joined the Apostle Philip, Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene in Gaul, and together they began to preach the glad tidings to the people there. Further legends involve how he had carried along a special possession: the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper and which Joseph had supposedly used to catch the blood flowing from Christ’s side after he was pierced with a lance on the cross. As a precious Christian relic, it was sought out for destruction by the Roman authorities, making it necessary to get it out of Judea in haste. 

     But Joseph, with as fervent a wander-lust as ever, felt restless in Gaul. Something in his heart told him that there were other missions for him to fulfill. One night, his deepest feelings were confirmed. As he lay sleeping in his hut, a brilliant flash of light awakened him, and he saw an angel shrouded in a cloud of incense standing before him.    

    “Joseph of Arimathea,” the heavenly visitor addressed him, “cross thou over to Britain and preach the glad tidings to Arvigarus. And there, where a Christmas miracle shall come to pass, do thou build the first Christian church in that land.” 

    Obeying the angelic command, Joseph readied himself to leave Gaul. Procuring a small ship, he set sail with eleven other Christian missionaries, intending to weigh anchor near Land’s End and his old stomping grounds in Cornwall. There he could make contact with some of his old business associates and properly plan for his missionary activities. But this was not to be. Channel storm blew them off course, and their ship ran aground in the marshlands around what is now Somerset. 

     Joseph and his companions were brought before their local ruler, Arvigarus, and explained that they had come to Britain to share a story…namely, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Impressed by their courage and frankness, he did give Joseph and his companions’ permission to preach. Furthermore, he let them make their base on the island of Avalon (also known as Ynis-Avallach, “the island of apples”, or Ynis-witren, “the island of glassy waters”), and divided the land into Twelve Hides, one for each of the missionaries. Today, this place is identified as modern-day Glastonbury, presumably surrounded by marshland way back when and mistakenly thought to be an island. 

   The location was more than significant, considering that Avalon had long been held sacred by the Celtic pagans as one of the “thin places” where contact could be made between mortals and the divine. The Tor, a structure built on one of the hills, was said to be a portals where gods, goddesses, and the faery folk could cross the thresholds of different worlds and visit the land, bringing either a blessing or a curse depending on the circumstances. It was one of the locations associated with the legends of Tir na Nog, the Isle of the Blessed said to bestow Eternal Youth in a realm outside of time. Thinking back on the legend of the Christ Child’s encounter with the Druids, this meeting of old and new faiths on sacred ground holds profound meaning. 

    Joseph and his fellow Christians were escorted across the marshlands and thereupon scaled one of the hills presumably to get a good view of what was to be their new home. When they reached the summit, the exhausted Joseph of Arimathea rested his weight on his hawthorn staff, which was said to be made with pieces of Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Immediately, the staff took root and blossomed with a cluster of beautiful white flowers. Since it was Christmas Eve of 63 A.D., Joseph took the sign to be a fulfillment of the angel’s prophecy and built a mud-and-wattle church dedicated to Our Lady on that spot, which came to be known as “Weary-all Hill”. The staff of Joseph continued to flourish and blossom every year on Christmas and Easter. 

   The Holy Grail, which he had brought to Britain wrapped in a cloth of white samite, was placed beneath the first altar to be raised in the land within the first church built on that spot. He later hid it at the bottom of well which afterwards gushed red-tinted water, now known as “Chalice Well” or “Blood Well.” As for Joseph, his burial place remains unknown, and yet it is said that he rests somewhere amidst the ancient ruins and lands of Glastonbury, where his sacred chalice and blooming staff remained visible signs of the miracle that would transform old Europe into Christendom. 

   In Arthurian mythology, the search for the Holy Grail brought Sir Galahad into the contact with “The Fisher King”, a custodian of the Grail who was said to be the descendent (whether in physical or spiritual sense) of Joseph of Arimathea. Galahad, the son of the rakish Sir Lancelot, is the only one able to find the Grail because he stands out from the other knights for his purity of heart. However, after he dies in ecstasy, the Grail once again disappears into the mists of Avalon. 

     In the same token, King Arthur himself is said to have been crossed the waters to reach Avalon after being grievously at the Apocalyptic Battle of Camlann. His enchanted sword Ex Caliber was then cast into the waters and received by the majestic immortal being, The Lady of the Lake. His ghost, in black armor, is still said to haunt the lands, while the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are said to be buried in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. 

    Of course, there are those who set out to debunk all these legends as completely falsified. Some claim that the Glastonbury Thorn was really brought back to Glastonbury Abbey by a zealous crusader who picked it up somewhere in Palestine during the Middle Ages, although it certainly has been proven that it did originate in the Middle East. Also, tests on the water from Chalice Well have shown that it has a very high iron-content, which explains its unusual red tint. As for the Arthur and Guinevere, it’s almost certain the “discovery” of their bodies was a hoax rigged by King Henry II who wanted to discourage the legend that Arthur would return as a champion for the Celtic peoples. Since the king was one of their main benefactors, the monks of Glastonbury seem to have decided it prudent to play along. 

    However, as with most mythologies, there is almost always a kernel of truth from which the embroidery sprung, not to mention spiritual truths that transcend the merely factual. Touching on Joseph of Arimathea, if other early Christians such as St. Paul traveled across the Roman Empire to spread their religion, why would it be unreasonable to believe that he might return to the land where he spent so much time in order to proclaim the glad tidings? As for the Glastonbury Thorn, its blooming on Christmas and Easter was a continued spectacle for generations, in spite of it being hacked down more than once by nay-sayers. 

   One of the most famous acts of vandalism against the Throne was committed by one of Cromwell’s Puritan soldiers during the English Civil War. Seeing it as a symbol of “popery”, he zealously struck it with his sword…causing splinters to strike him in the eyes and blind him for life. Meantime, the local Catholics and Anglicans collected pieces from the thorn and had them re-grafted in several different places across Glastonbury. It became a symbol of the British spirit of endurance and resilience, and it became customary to send a branch to the reigning monarch every Christmas. 

   So whether it was Joseph of Arimathea or someone else who first planted the Glastonbury Thorn in British soil, the fact remains that it did take root, blossomed, and bore much fruit. The true flowering was the love and truth of Christ that spread across the land and transformed the culture into something new and beautiful while also borrowing greatly from the traditions and spiritual wisdoms found in the old. Even the Holy Grail shared many similarities with the Magic Cauldron from Celtic Mythology, as both promised to satisfy the longings of and fully restore life to the body and soul, and bring about completeness and unity within every person. In this way, we can see that mythical meeting between Jesus and Druids coming to fruition.

 —

By Rosaria Marie

 

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