Joseph of Arimathea
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
August 1, 2022
Today, we commemorate Joseph of Arimathea. All that we know of him comes from the narratives of the burial of Jesus in the Gospels. Though John speaks of Joseph as a secret disciple of our Lord, and associates him with Nicodemus, another member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who was drawn to Jesus, we know nothing of any further activity of these men in the early Christian community.
Later, however, legends developed about their leadership in the Church. One of the more enduring is the story of Joseph’s coming to the ancient Church of Glastonbury in southwest England and bringing with him the Holy Grail, the cup used at the Last Supper which Joseph had used to catch some of Christ’s blood at his crucifixion. According to the Arthurian legends dating to the 13th century, Joseph died in England, and his eldest son Josephus became the island’s spiritual leader while his younger son Galahad took charge of secular duties. Before he died, Josephus passed the Grail to his nephew Alan and his descendants. Galahad’s grandson, named Galahad after him, is the one we know as Sir Galahad the Chaste.
Galahad was said to be the greatest knight ever, and his virginity is often seen to be the key to his perfection. In other words, he’s the perfect knight because he’s a virgin. Galahad can defeat any enemy who comes before him, and even at an extremely young age, surpasses his father, in terms of strength, chivalry, and ability. Galahad receives the Perilous Seat at the Round Table, which is destined to belong to the greatest knight, who would be the one to end the Grail quests; if anyone else tried to sit there, they would find themselves in peril. Galahad is the only knight who can draw the Sword in the Stone as he is the only knight worthy enough.
Let’s be clear. This is a lovely story, but it is lore, and we have no written documentation of it before the 13th century. But it is holy lore. One of the more recent scholarly works on the Holy Grail, written by Richard Barber, argues that the Grail legend is connected to the introduction of "more ceremony and mysticism" surrounding the sacrament of the Eucharist in the High Middle Ages, proposing that the first Grail stories may have been connected to the "renewal in this traditional sacrament".
That leads us to this stained-glass window right over here of the likely fictional figure of St. Galahad the Chaste. If you haven’t seen it, please come up and take a peek after Mass. It was given by Fr. Edwin Merrill in 1921 and dedicated to a Ralph Albert Parker, and “old college chum”. Fr. Merrill was rector of St. Mary’s from 1918-1953 (35 years!), and his portrait at a much later age is right back there. After completing his first year of seminary at the age of 27, like many young people do, he and Mr. Parker traveled on foot throughout Western Europe for about five months. Mr. Parker later married and Merrill of course finished seminary and was ordained priest. In 1919, the year after Fr. Merrill arrived here, Mr. Parker died of typhoid fever at the age of 32, leaving a widow and one-year-old daughter.
Fr. Merrill was the last “bachelor priest” of St. Mary’s. A story has developed over the years that Fr. Merrill and Mr. Parker were lovers, but let’s be clear. This is a lovely story, but it is lore. But I think it is holy lore. What we know is that they went to college together and were friends, and that they were so close that Parker’s death in 1919 spurred Fr. Merrill to commission this window, with Sir Galahad gazing at the enter of the altar where I will elevate the chalice in a moment. The inscription at the bottom says, “I, Galahad, have seen the Holy Grail. Let us press forward.”
Joseph of Arimathea probably never visited England during his lifetime. But the holy lore that developed over a thousand years after his death is ever present here at St. Mary’s. As we receive communion today, consecrated upon the same altar where Fr. Edwin Merrill celebrated Mass literally thousands of times, let us give thanks for his friendship with Ralph Albert Parker, no matter the precise nature of their relationship. For the fruits of that relationship continue to remind all who see this window that the bravest knight in all of Christendom has found the true Grail, the prize beyond all measure. That prize is nothing other than Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Amen.
 Barber, Richard. The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Harvard University Press, 2004.
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