They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.
~ Mark 15:21
As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.
~ Matthew 27:32
As they led him away they took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country; and after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus.
~ Luke 23:26
We are fast approaching the end of Lent. I, personally, find Holy Week to be a deeply emotional experience and both dread and anticipate it every year. The story is well known, we walk through the familiar steps, feeling once again the raw emotions relating to the public torture and death of a loved one, and the pure, overwhelming joy of his miraculous return to us. We find ourselves re-experiencing Jesus’ final words to his disciples, his plea in the garden, his inevitable betrayal, his subsequent conviction, the crowd’s call for the release of Barabbas and piercing cry to “Crucify him!” We spend time at the Stations of the Cross, walking with Jesus through the city as he struggles to bear the weight of the heavy cross on which he will soon be hung to die. We cry for him as he falls under its weight, over and over again.
We also get a chance to experience the stories of the other people involved. This is Jesus’ story, but there are other players. Judas’ story of betrayal is woven into this tale. As is Peter’s, denying his Lord three times before the cock crows twice. And Pilate’s story, forced to condemn a man he feels is innocent to appease public opinion. The story of the women crying on the street as Jesus carries his heavy cross, and his consolation of them. We see Mary and John at the foot of the cross, as Jesus, in one of his final acts, binds them to each other as mother and son. And the revolutionaries crucified alongside Jesus, one striking out at him in anger, the other awed by his sacrifice even before his death.
However, I would like to focus this discussion on a story that gets very little exposure. Three of the four gospelists mention it, each giving this character one simple sentence each. Simon the Cyrenian, a man on his way for a visit. As Jesus, falling under his cross, makes his way out of the city, the guards weary of the slow progress they are making toward their destination, possibly even beginning to regret how much they tortured Jesus before they handed him his heavy burden. They see this traveller and opt to press him into service. The Roman guards, at the time, were able to press citizens into service the same way law enforcement today can commandeer a vehicle.
Take a moment and put yourself in Simon’s sandals. You were headed to Jerusalem for a visit, making your way down the road, when you saw a group of people headed your way. It looks like Roman guards, and possibly a criminal, carrying a cross. You keep your peace, hoping they will pass and let you on your way to your destination, but they do not. The guards stop you and demand that you carry the cross for the condemned criminal, who looks already close to death, clearly beaten and weak. Argument is not an option, and you shoulder his heavy load, following him as the guards lead you on.
At first glance, it feels like Simon didn’t get to make a choice here. He was minding his own business, wandering down the road, when he was suddenly called upon to take on this task. But if we step back, we see that, like many other occurrences in this story stretching from Passover dinner to Easter morning, greater forces were at work. While the call to action came from the Roman guards, it was God who called on Simon to ease the suffering of his beloved Son on his way to make the ultimate sacrifice. Simon is faced with what, on the surface, looks like a no-choice scenario. The guards have demanded his service, and, by law, he must comply. But if he were to refuse, he would not be the first person that day to act out of character, remember the crowd, so easily swayed by the chief priests, shouting for the release of a known murderer and the crucifixion of one of their own? Picture a new version of the story of Jesus’ trek to Golgotha. He struggles under the weight of the cross, falling again and again. As he makes is way out of the city, the guards see a traveller and stop to press him into service. He takes one look at the beaten man bent under the weight of the cross and refuses, sneering “Why should I carry the weight of his transgressions?” Just another painful emphasis of how the entirety of Jerusalem was turned against Jesus in order that the prophecies might be fulfilled.
But Simon does make a choice. He hears God’s call to him and takes on the weight of Jesus’ cross, carrying it to Golgotha. He doesn’t necessarily know who this man is, or why he is being killed, but when he is presented with the call, he answers, as many have before and after, “Here I am.”
Lent elicits a lot of discussion about “taking up your cross”. We talk about the burdens God has called us to take on in our lives, be them chronic illnesses, difficult people, poor living situation, or any other difficulty we must endure. With the entrance of Simon of Cyrene, we need to take a moment and contemplate “taking up another’s cross”. This is a huge action, to acknowledge the crosses we are already bearing, small or large, and, when faced with God’s call, reach out and heft someone else’s cross onto our back, even for a short while.
Take some time this Holy Week to think about Simon. He got three sentences in the Bible, all of which simply stated that he was called upon to carry Jesus’ cross, and he stopped, turned around, and bore its weight. But did they really need to say any more?