The pantomime season is almost upon us. Catsfield will be performing Dick Whittington and Crowhurst is doing Camelot the Pantomime. The latter has a tenuous connection with the stories of King Arthur.
Over summer I visited the ancient Christian site of Glastonbury Abbey where the tomb of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere could be visited before Henry VIII destroyed it. Glastonbury’s link to Arthur, however, is nothing compared to the tradition that our Lord Jesus Christ visited as a young man, when he was brought by his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. When the Women’s Institute sings ‘And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?’ the Glastonbury tradition would answer yes! Such a journey would have been perfectly feasible in the first century. Our Lord could have caught a ship from the ports of Tyre and Sidon, since we know that ships from here were visiting our shores to obtain tin. In an interesting little book, by the Rev’d C Dobson, vicar of St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, the writer mounts a pretty good case for a Glastonbury visit, since it explains the quiet period between the childhood of Christ and his reappearance as an adult.
One of the more dramatic parts of this tradition is the story of the Glastonbury Thorn. On what is now Christmas Day Joseph of Arimathea is said to have thrust his walking staff into the ground, to show that his journey was now over. The staff rooted and grew into the Glastonbury Thorn. It is a botanical fact that the thorn is not a native to this country, but comes from the Levant. Unlike English hawthorn it also flowers twice a year including around Christmas. Every year flowering sprigs of the thorn are sent to HM the Queen, so look out for it in the background of her Christmas Day broadcast.
The thorn has been highly prized by many down the centuries. Given the fact that it was carried across the seas it is not surprising that sailors used to like to have a sprig with them. Indeed the whole Glastonbury story, with its sea travelling element, probably influences some of the words to that old carol ‘I saw three ships come sailing in’; in one version the ships even arrive in Sussex.
Ultimately it is quite hard to sort out historical truth when it comes to Glastonbury. In a masterpiece of tact the great wooden cross, presented by the Queen to Glastonbury, is inscribed to record that it is here to mark ‘a Christian sanctuary so ancient that only legend can record its origin.’
For myself my faith does not depend upon the truth of the story of the Glastonbury Thorn. But the story does point to the miracle of Christmas. Firstly the thorn is an unlikely arrival in this county; at Christmas we celebrate the unlikely wonder of God firmly planting Himself in the word, as He became a child in Bethlehem. Secondly a sea voyage was a traumatic and dangerous thing in the ancient world. The ‘voyage’ of God from heaven to earth, to become one of us, was even more dramatic and dangerous. Finally just as the thorn flowers at Christmas, so we celebrate the blossoming of God’s love among us.