We don’t know much about Simon the Cyrene. He is the one that was compelled by the Roman guard to carry Jesus’ cross. Perhaps he wasn’t even watching the proceedings that day, but trying to get from one point to another and was accosted as he made his way to secure lodging or procure food for the Passover celebration. Maybe he was simply on his way to meet up at some place and time with his relatives and extended family and this funeral procession—because it was a funeral procession for a dead man—turned into his path. And perhaps he even muttered, under his breath that the dead are always interrupting life. The dead and dying challenge our comfortable lives with their silent cries and the questions that arise in their wake—like “why am I here on this earth? and why do I have breath if not for more than running errands and conducting business and purchasing oranges and ripened figs at the local market?” But no, our gospel doesn’t say that…but Luke’s gospel says that Simon was seized coming in from the country and that he was the father of Rufus and Alexander.
To come in from the country hints at the reason that Simon was in Jerusalem. He had come from Cyrene, which was modern day Libya for the annual observance. Likely, his family were with him, his two sons, in particular. Perhaps Simon and his boys were lingering on the edge of the throng—not quite in the mix, but curious nonetheless, the way that we are regrettably curious at the misfortune and stunning defeat of others, and in the way pity evokes our emotions and our commentary, and the way that we have a habit of muttering under our breath, “too bad,” and “thank God it’s not me or someone I know.”
We really don’t know what Simon the Cyrene was doing in the crowd that day, whether he was coming from the country to worship, or staying on the edge the crowd until the whole terrible thing was over and the mob went home to their families only to remark at the dinner table that night, “Guess what? I attended a crucifixion today.”
Simon the Cyrene does not appear again in scripture, but only in our imaginations. We do not know what happens to him after he carries the cross for Jesus, and for the guards who compelled him. He is portrayed in various ways throughout art, tradition, and literature. Some say that because Simon was pressed to carry the cross, he would have been understandably reluctant and dismayed to be caught up in proceedings for a perceived criminal and disturbed or shaken to have caught the attention of the Roman guards who force him to comply with their demands.
Have you ever heard the Polish saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys”? Perhaps you yourself have used the phrase. It tends to refer to situations that are not your affair but have somehow caught your attention. It tends to be invoked when you are asked to bother yourself about something or someone over which you have no desire to be involved and you have no authority to change or re-direct.
Simon might have easily muttered some form of, “Not my circus, not my monkeys” and would have been justified in doing so. He wasn’t the ringleader of this crowd; the Roman leadership was. He wasn’t one of their monkeys, the guard was. He may or may not have known who Jesus was or why the crucifixion was happening. But there he was, caught up in this ordeal unfolding before him and when the powers-that-be conscript you to carry, you often carry whether you like it or not upon threat of your life.
Likewise, we who would prefer to distance ourselves from politics or pain, and from the crosses that press upon others who are seemingly different from us, might want to declare, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Yet, it often happens, that some event crosses our path like a funeral procession to a grave and we are forced to pay attention to something unfolding that sears our soul and makes its mark.
Tradition portrays Simon as being changed by accompanying Jesus on his final march to Calvary. Simon walked close enough to Jesus to hear his groans and the taunts of others. He likely had conversation with the man—not the kind of conversation you might have on an evening walk, but the kind of conversation that you can have with the dying, who frequently choose their words carefully and deliberately because every word requires effort and breath to speak.
Or perhaps it wasn’t speech that moved Simon but the juxtaposition between how human beings ought to act and treat each other, especially those of the religious sort, and what can happen when human brutality gains the upper hand.
We all have personal crosses to bear and yet this story is really not about our personal crosses. It is about Jesus’ cross of pain and suffering and how serving him will often mean bearing a cross for the convicted, the dying, and the already-damned. Too often we personalize the story and talk about our own burdens which isn’t wrong devotionally, but misguided. Some of our personal burdens Jesus never intended us to carry. Some of our not-so-hidden hardships are privilege dressed up as misery. Some of our pain is because we have been inconvenienced on our way to buy plums at the supermarket or because our gift horse has bolted from its stall and has run its course untethered. And some of our burdens truly are piercing, perplexing and terrible, and Jesus is not saying carry more, but “please allow me to share the weight of this crushing pain.”
It seems to me that Simon went from reluctant to willing, and we can too. Whether it is becoming more open and aware of the many hurts to which human beings are prone, or educating ourselves about the complex conflicts in which we are unwillingly and willingly enmeshed, we can also find ourselves reluctantly pressed into service for some cause. Let us be circumspect that the cause is just and the means would be one of which Jesus would approve. Sadly, in this world, there is always another crucifixion to attend on Calvary’s hill and another cross to carry for Jesus but we would do well to let ourselves be interrupted from our parades and preparations to help carry what should never be carried alone without companions, without respite, without release, or without recourse. Whether it is the atrocities that affect real families who bleed and die leaving a wake of pain for the survivors, or the personal struggles of the poor and forgotten, or the unfolding domestic drama that shows up in our sibling’s face and interpersonal behavior, we might ask God how our involvement helps or further hurts the one who has been condemned to die or is written off as collateral damage. We might become more circumspect about those Roman circus’s which demand spectators and supporters in order to claim victims and those that require our participation in order to operate as business-as-usual.
As we enter into Holy Week, we might consider those crosses that we have been compelled to carry. Have we been pressed into service for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who took suffering upon himself that all might live, or has the order to carry been issued by a Roman prefect who fears challenge or chastisement by the masses? How are we implicated in Jesus’ death and how are we distanced from his death? And how does violence and pain spread when it becomes far easier to compel someone else to carry what we have refused to carry ourselves?
Countee Cullen, an African American poet, writing in the earlier part of this century, relates how his experience of carrying Jesus’ cross accomplished far more than what the Empire could do by violence and other means. His is a direct application of Simon the Cyrene’s experience. I close with his words for his example and your inspiration this Holy Week:
“Simon The Cyrenian Speaks”
— by Countee Cullen
He never spoke a word to me,
And yet He called my name;
He never gave a sign to me,
And yet I knew and came.
At first I said, “I will not bear
His cross upon my back;
He only seeks to place it there
Because my skin is black.”
But He was dying for a dream,
And He was very meek,
And in His eyes there shone a gleam
Men journey far to seek.
It was Himself my pity bought;
I did for Christ alone
What all of Rome could not have wrought
With bruise of lash or stone.