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Monday, December 23, 2013

The Legend of the Glastonbury Thorn......

is a story that hearkens back to the early days of Christianity in Britain, serving a foundation for various other myths and legends, including the Arthurian Cycles. Since it a very Christmassy tale, I think now is an appropriate time to tell it!

     Although the exact date is unknown, tradition holds that Christianity was introduced to Britain some time during the first century. This definitive event in British history is often associated with St. Joseph of Arimathea. Pious legend tells us that he was the younger brother of St. Joachim, thus making him the uncle of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the great-uncle of Jesus Christ.
    He is said to have worked as a merchant under the employ of the Roman government, carrying lead and tin from Cornwall, England, to Phoenicia. He also owned a fleet of ships with which he made trading ventures throughout the Roman Empire. Living in Marmorica, Egypt, for a time, Joseph moved back to Judea and settled in the town of Arimathea, eight miles north of Jerusalem. He was a voting member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, and moving so close to the holy city would have been convenient for someone of his position.
    The next phase of the legend deals with Joseph’s journeys abroad with the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child. These tales maintain that St. Joseph the Carpenter died when Jesus was still a boy. As a result, Joseph of Arimathea took his niece and grand-nephew under his wing and brought them along on his tin-trading missions to Cornwall, England, and beyond. This is 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

    Also, William Blake, the 18th century poet and mystic, speculated about Christ’s supposed visit to England and vowed to improve his country for the sake of it in his famous 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 resided in pre-Roman Britain, Joseph of Arimathea’s appearance on the British scene is not at all impossible. The Romans did carry on a lively trade with the Britons long before the actual Roman conquest and colonization of Britannia, and a prominent man such as Joseph may well have been involved in it. 

    Years later on that fateful Holy Week, Joseph is said to have been the owner of the Upper Room in which Jesus and the Apostles celebrated the Last Supper. After the Crucifixion, it was he who obtained permission from the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, to take Christ’s body from the cross and give him a decent burial in a new tomb hewn out of rock. As a result of his sympathetic gesture, he suffered persecuted at the hands of the Sanhedrin who he once served.

    Legend holds that he was imprisoned by them and miraculously released by Christ on the eve of his Resurrection. But this was far from the end of his troubles. Pontius Pilate launched a persecution of Christians 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. But then one night 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.”

    Joseph did as he was told and set out in a small ship will eleven other Christian missionaries. He intended sail around Land’s End in Cornwall and return to his old stomping grounds in Cornwall in order to make contact with some of his old business associates there. However, this was not to be. His ship ran aground in the marshland around Glastonbury, and he and his companions were seized by the natives and taken before their king, Arvigarus.

   Although he was impressed by their courage, the king was still unwilling to convert to Christianity. However, he did give Joseph and his companions’ permission to preach. Furthermore, he let them make their base on the island of Avalon (“the island of apples”), which was also know as 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 Christians were escorted to Avalon and enthusiastically decided to climb a steep hill, presumably to get a good view of 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.

    Further legends involve the Holy Grail, which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly used to catch the blood flowing from Christ’s side after he was pierced with a lance. He is said to have taken in with him to Britain wrapped in a cloth of white samite and placed it under the first altar to be raised in the land. He later hid it at the bottom of well which afterwards gushed out red-tinted water, now known as “Chalice Well” or “Blood Well.”

    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. Also, tests on the water from Chalice Well have shown that it has a very high iron-content, which explains its unusual red tint.

    However, these legends are not without significance, nor have they been proven to be altogether false. 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 St. Joseph of Arimathea would return to the land where he spent so much time in order to proclaim the glad tidings? Furthermore, to presume that are no such things as miracles is a truly far-fetched notion. Whether it was Joseph or someone else who first planted the cross in British soil, the fact remains that it did take root, blossomed, and bore much fruit.

Glastonbury Thorn
The Glastonbury Thorn, before being vandalized in 2010

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Campion's Brag".........

is the ultimate battle-cry for the beleaguered Catholics of England, ringing from the days of the Elizabethan persecution. Edmund Campion, "The Diamond of England", was the one to write it, and so he did, even though the fulfillment of the brag is left to all those who keep the faith and battle for the Kingdom of Heaven. And here, in his own words on his feast day, is "Campion's Brag":

    To the Right Honourable, the Lords of Her Majesty's Privy Council:

     Whereas I have come out of Germany and Bohemia, being sent by my superiors, and adventured myself into this noble realm, my dear country, for the glory of God and benefit of souls, I thought it like enough that, in this busy, watchful, and suspicious world, I should either sooner or later be intercepted and stopped of my course.

    Wherefore, providing for all events, and uncertain what may become of me, when God shall haply deliver my body into durance, I supposed it needful to put this in writing in a readiness, desiring your good lordships to give it your reading, for to know my cause. This doing, I trust I shall ease you of some labour. For that which otherwise you must have sought for by practice of wit, I do now lay into your hands by plain confession. And to the intent that the whole matter may be conceived in order, and so the better both understood and remembered, I make thereof these nine points or articles, directly, truly and resolutely opening my full enterprise and purpose.
i. I confess that I am (albeit unworthy) a priest of the Catholic Church, and through the great mercy of God vowed now these eight years into the religion [religious order] of the Society of Jesus. Hereby I have taken upon me a special kind of warfare under the banner of obedience, and also resigned all my interest or possibility of wealth, honour, pleasure, and other worldly felicity.
ii. At the voice of our General, which is to me a warrant from heaven and oracle of Christ, I took my voyage from Prague to Rome (where our General Father is always resident) and from Rome to England, as I might and would have done joyously into any part of Christendom or Heatheness, had I been thereto assigned.

    iii. My charge is, of free cost to preach the Gospel, to minister the Sacraments, to instruct the simple, to reform sinners, to confute errors—in brief, to cry alarm spiritual against foul vice and proud ignorance, wherewith many of my dear countrymen are abused.
iv. I never had mind, and am strictly forbidden by our Father that sent me, to deal in any respect with matter of state or policy of this realm, as things which appertain not to my vocation, and from which I gladly restrain and sequester my thoughts.
v. I do ask, to the glory of God, with all humility, and under your correction, three sorts of indifferent and quiet audiences: the first, before your Honours, wherein I will discourse of religion, so far as it toucheth the common weal and your nobilities: the second, whereof I make more account, before the Doctors and Masters and chosen men of both universities, wherein I undertake to avow the faith of our Catholic Church by proofs innumerable—Scriptures, councils, Fathers, history, natural and moral reasons: the third, before the lawyers, spiritual and temporal, wherein I will justify the said faith by the common wisdom of the laws standing yet in force and practice.

     vi. I would be loath to speak anything that might sound of any insolent brag or challenge, especially being now as a dead man to this world and willing to put my head under every man's foot, and to kiss the ground they tread upon. Yet I have such courage in avouching the majesty of Jesus my King, and such affiance in his gracious favour, and such assurance in my quarrel, and my evidence so impregnable, and because I know perfectly that no one Protestant, nor all the Protestants living, nor any sect of our adversaries (howsoever they face men down in pulpits, and overrule us in their kingdom of grammarians and unlearned ears) can maintain their doctrine in disputation. I am to sue most humbly and instantly for combat with all and every of them, and the most principal that may be found: protesting that in this trial the better furnished they come, the better welcome they shall be.

     vii. And because it hath pleased God to enrich the Queen my Sovereign Lady with notable gifts of nature, learning, and princely education, I do verily trust that if her Highness would vouchsafe her royal person and good attention to such a conference as, in the second part of my fifth article I have motioned, or to a few sermons, which in her or your hearing I am to utter such manifest and fair light by good method and plain dealing may be cast upon these controversies, that possibly her zeal of truth and love of her people shall incline her noble Grace to disfavour some proceedings hurtful to the realm, and procure towards us oppressed more equity.

     viii. Moreover I doubt not but you, her Highness' Council, being of such wisdom and discreet in cases most important, when you shall have heard these questions of religion opened faithfully, which many times by our adversaries are huddled up and confounded, will see upon what substantial grounds our Catholic Faith is builded, how feeble that side is which by sway of the time prevaileth against us, and so at last for your own souls, and for many thousand souls that depend upon your government, will discountenance error when it is bewrayed [revealed], and hearken to those who would spend the best blood in their bodies for your salvation. Many innocent hands are lifted up to heaven for you daily by those English students, whose posterity shall never die, which beyond seas, gathering virtue and sufficient knowledge for the purpose, are determined never to give you over, but either to win you heaven, or to die upon your pikes. And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.

     ix. If these my offers be refused, and my endeavours can take no place, and I, having run thousands of miles to do you good, shall be rewarded with rigour. I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us his grace, and see us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.

St Edmund Campion.jpg
"My charge cry alarm spiritual....."