The Mystic Thorn
It was Christmas day in the year 63. The autumn colors of red and gold had long since faded from the hills, and the trees which covered the island valley of Glastonbury, the Avalon or Apple-tree isle of the early Britons, were bare and leafless. The spreading, glass-like waters encircling it round about gleamed faintly in the pale afternoon light of the winter's day. The light fell also on the silver stems of the willows and on the tall flags and bending reeds and osiers which bordered the marsh island. Westward the long ranges of hills running seaward were purple in the distance and their tops were partly hidden by the misty white clouds which rested lightly upon them. To the south rose sharply and abruptly a high, pointed hill, the tor of Glastonbury.
It was nearing the sunset hour when a little band of men in pilgrim garb, approaching from the west and climbing the long, hilly ridge, came within sight of this "isle of rest." Twelve pilgrims there were in all, in dress and appearance very unlike the fair-haired Britons who at that time dwelt in the land. One, he who led the way, was an old man. His hair was white and his long, white beard fell upon his breast, but he was tall and erect and bore no other signs of age. In his hand he carried a stout hawthorn staff.
The men were climbing slowly up the hill, for they were all weary with long travelling. And here at the summit of the ridge they stopped to look out over the wooded hills, the wide-spreading waters and the grassy island with its leafless thickets of oak and alder. Sitting down to rest, they spoke one to another of their long journeying from the far-distant land of Palestine and of their hope that here their pilgrimage might have end.
Those who were with him called their leader Joseph of Arimathea. He it was who had been known among the Jews many years before as a counsellor, "a good man, and a just," and who, when the Saviour was crucified on Calvary, had given his sepulchre to receive the body of the Lord.
From this tomb upon the third day came the risen Saviour; but the people, thinking that Joseph had stolen away the body, seized and imprisoned him in a chamber where there was no window. They fastened the door and put a seal upon the lock and placed men before the door to guard it. Then the priests and the Levites contrived to what death they should put him; but when they sent for Joseph to be brought forth he could not be found, though the seal was still upon the lock and the guard before the door.
The disciples of Joseph as they gathered about their fire of an evening often told how, at night, as he prayed, the prison chamber had been filled with a light brighter than that of the sun, and Jesus himself had appeared to him and had led him forth unharmed to his own house in Arimathea.
And sometimes they told how, again imprisoned, he had been fed from the Holy Cup from which the Saviour had drunk at the "last sad supper with his own" and in which Joseph had caught the blood of his Master when he was on the cross, and how he had been blest with such heavenly visions that the years passed and seemed to him as naught.
Now after a certain time he had been released from prison; but there were people who still doubted him and so with his friends, Lazarus and Mary Magdalene and Philip and others, he had been driven away from Jerusalem. The small vessel, without oars, rudder or sail, in which they had been cast adrift on the Mediterranean, had come at last in safety to the coast of Gaul. And for many years since then had Joseph wandered through the land carrying ever with him two precious relics, the Holy Grail and "that same spear wherewith the Roman pierced the side of Christ." Now at last with a chosen band of disciples he had reached the little-known island of the Britons.
Landing from their little boat in the early morn on this unknown coast, they had knelt upon the shore while Joseph "gave blessing to the God of heaven in a lowly chanted prayer." Then, "over the brow of the seaward hill" they had passed, led by an invisible hand and singing as they went. All day through dark forests and over reedy swamps they had made their way and now at nightfall, tired and wayworn, they rested on the ridgy hill which has ever since been known by the name of Wearyall.
During the long day's march they had seen but few of the people of the land and these had held aloof.
Now, suddenly, the silence was broken by loud cries and shouts, and groups of the native Britons, wild and uncouth in appearance, their half-naked bodies stained blue with woad, were seen coming from different directions up the hill. They were armed with spears, hatchets of bronze, and other rude weapons of olden warfare and, as they came rapidly nearer, their threatening aspect and menacing cries startled the pilgrim band. Rising hastily, as though they would flee, the men looked in terror, one toward another. Joseph alone showed no trace of fear and, obedient to a sign from him, they all knelt in prayer upon the hillside.
Then, thrusting his thorny staff into the ground beside him and raising both hands toward heaven, Joseph claimed possession of this new land in the name of his Master, Christ.
His voice ceased and the men rose from their knees, looking expectantly for the heavenly sign, but ready, if need be, to meet with courage the threatened attack.
But stillness had again settled over the hill. Only a few rods distant the Britons had stopped and grouped closely together were gazing in awestruck silence upon the dry and withered staff, which had so often aided Joseph in his wanderings from the Holy Land. Following their gaze, Joseph and his companions turned toward it and even as they did so, behold! A miracle! The staff took root and grew and, as they watched, they saw it put forth branches and green leaves, fair buds and milk-white blossoms which filled the air with their sweet odor.
For a moment, awed and amazed, all stood silent. Wondrously had Joseph's prayer been answered! This was indeed the heavenly token which had been foretold! Then with tears of joy all cried out as with one voice, "Our God is with us! Jesus is with us!"
Marvelling much at the strange things they had just seen and heard, the Britons dropped their weapons and fled in haste from the hill.
Then did Joseph and his disciples go down across the marsh into the valley and there they rested undisturbed.
Word of the miracle which had thus been wrought on Wearyall Hill was brought soon to Arviragus, the heathen king of the time, and he welcomed gladly the holy men and gave them the beautiful vale of Avalon whereon to live. There they built "a little lonely church," with roof of rushes and walls of woven twigs and "wattles from the marsh," the first Christian church which had ever been built in Britain.
There they dwelt for many years, serving God, fasting and praying, and there Joseph taught the half-barbarous Britons, who gathered to listen to him, the faith of Christ.
Time passed and the little, low, wattled church became a great and beautiful abbey. Many pilgrims there were who came to worship at the shrine of St. Joseph; to drink from the holy well which sprang from the foot of Chalice Hill where the Holy Cup lay buried; and to watch the budding of the mystic thorn, which, year after year, when the snows of Christmas covered the hills, put forth its holy blossoms, "a symbol of God's promise, care and love."
Now long, long afterward there came a time when there was war in the land and one day a rough soldier who recked not of its heavenly origin cut down the sacred tree. Only a flat stone now marks the place where it once stood and where Joseph's staff burst into bloom. But there were other trees which had been grown from slips of the miraculous thorn and these, "mindful of our Lord" still keep the sacred birthday and blossom each year on Christmas Day.