There has been the sad story in the news about the damage done by vandals to the Glastonbury Thorn. Here is a piece that I wrote some time ago.
The Thorn That Blooms at
This night I would like to tell you a story. This story is not from Scripture but from the folkways of our Anglican Tradition. It is one of those stories that are impossible to verify. It is not, as they say, one of those things necessary to salvation. But it is a story that has warmed the hearts of the faithful for generations and I want to share it with you. It is a story about someone you would not ordinarily associate with Christmas: St. Joseph of Arimathea.
Joseph of Arimathea is remembered as the person who donated the expensive garden tomb in which the body of Jesus was laid after being taken down from the cross. St. Joseph was, according to tradition, a wealthy man and a trader. Some ancient authorities believe he was related to Jesus, perhaps his uncle. There is a charming English legend, quite unverifiable but stoutly believed in Cornwall, that Joseph of Arimathea was involved in the tin trade and sent ships to the tin mines in Cornwall. Britain was then at the edge of the Roman Empire and represented one of the boundaries of the known world. And the story goes that his uncle sent the boy Jesus on one of his ships to visit England and that the young Jesus walked upon the fields of Cornwall. There is even a Hymn about all of this in the English Hymnal, “And did those feet tread upon that green and pleasant land.”
During the life of Jesus, we catch glimpses of Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospels. He appears to be like Nicodemus, one of a small number of the Pharisees and the ruling body of the Sanhedrin who sympathized with Jesus and who came in secret to hear him speak. We know that Joseph must have been present at the trial of Jesus and that, out of fear for his own safety, he did not intervene on behalf of Jesus.
Joseph seems to have come to himself after the Crucifixion and to have come forward boldly to claim the body of Jesus from Pilate. Joseph then has the body of Christ laid in his own expensive tomb and arranges for half a hundredweight of expensive spices for the funeral. (The funeral industry seldom uses high-pressure sales techniques. It merely offers choices. Guilt does the rest.) The story I want to tell you tonight comes many years later. Joseph of Arimathea has become a witness to the Resurrection and a great missionary. Finally, near the end of his life and weary from his great travels on behalf of the Gospel, he decides to take the Gospel to the ends of the Earth—to Britain. He travels to a place called Glastonbury. According to the legend, St. Joseph brought with him the Chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, and in the cup, some of the precious blood of the Lord gathered from His broken body. This Chalice was the Holy Grail that was the object of the quest of King Arthur and his knights. Another legend tells that Glastonbury is the site of Camelot and that Arthur is buried there.
The legend of St. Joseph says that when he got off the boat he was so weary that he planted his staff into the ground in order to be able to rest his whole weight upon it. The staff rooted to the spot and burst into flower. This plant blooms each year at Christmas time. It is called the Glastonbury Thorn. This much of the story is certain. There is such a plant in Glastonbury, especially on the grounds of the Cathedral there. The plant is something like a Hawthorn and it does flower each year around Christmas. In the seventeenth century, the troops of Oliver Cromwell, in a fit of Puritan zeal, tried to cut down the Glastonbury Thorn. The effect was to spread it around. The plant survives and thrives to this day.
I like this story about Joseph of Arimathea. It is comforting. Christmas is more complicated than the simple cheer of the greeting cards. The Joseph who goes to claim the body of the Lord from Pilate is a man full of grief and guilt over lost opportunities. Many of us, I think, come to Christmas this way, with some guilt about what we have let pass us by and some guilt about what is gone and cannot be gotten back. We have guilt about the time we should have spent with spouse or children, with parents or siblings or friends. Now we are separated by distance or death, and we miss our missed chances. Or perhaps it is some part of ourselves that we miss, something that was so alive once upon a Christmas time and which has become lost and inaccessible. We are looking for something inside and we cannot find it. Even for children there is sometimes sadness and weariness mixed in with the genuine joy and celebration of Christmas. The heart, after all, can carry more than one tune at a time and they are not necessarily in the same mood.
I, at any rate, identify with Joseph of Arimathea and perhaps at least some of you here tonight do as well. But the story goes on. This man, wearied by the secret weight of his guilt and grief, this man who both cares and is care worn, becomes a witness to the new life whose birthday is tonight. Into the hands of such a one as this (and the Saints in their beginnings are never particularly admirable or heroic—they get changed—that’s the whole point), into the hands of such a one as this, God places the precious blood of His love poured out for the life of the world. This person, who has been wearied with grief and guilt, becomes weary spreading the good news of God’s life-giving love which has been born into our midst this night. From the hands of such a one as this new life flowers forth, life which cannot for long be cut back, but which blossoms again and again.
Now in a moment you will each make a journey down this road to Bethlehem where you will receive the Word of God’s love made flesh. As He did with St. Joseph of Arimathea, God will place in your hands His broken body and will entrust to you His precious blood, and your life, which perhaps is touched by sadness and regret, will carry—as St. Joseph carried the Grail—the secret treasure of God’s healing love which has overcome even death and the grave. Do not be surprised if under your hand in the midst of life’s care, at the limit of your strength, something unexpectedly flowers forth. It will not be the first time nor the last. It has happened before. It will happen again. Have faith in Christmas. Put your whole weight upon it. Amen