20 After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. (Mark 15:20-21, NRSV)
(L) Members of our group took turns to carry the cross [Photo credit: Dr. LL Chan]; (R) Jesus falls and is helped by Simon of Cyrene, from Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ.
Christians all over the world pray the Stations of the Cross and when they come to Jerusalem, they walk the celebrated Via Dolorosa (the Way of Suffering, the Way of the Cross) – a 14-station route marked with plaques and identified by Roman numerals. Under one kilometer in length, the route starts from the spot tradition says Jesus encountered Pontius Pilate, winds its way westward to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the last five Stations are located and which encloses the crucifixion, death and burial sites of Jesus in Jerusalem.
Pilgrims have retraced the steps of the Crucifixion of Jesus in the Old City of Jerusalem since before the eighth century. Today, on every Friday, Franciscan friars lead a Roman Catholic procession to walk the Via Dolorosa route.
Sturdy and comfortable walking shoes are strongly recommended when touring Jerusalem, as pilgrims walk on congested streets covered with rough cobblestones and many steps.
Members of our group took turns to carry the heavy wooden cross which intensified our experience of the suffering of Jesus on his way to the crucifixion site. We helped each other carry the burden, and prayed the stations along the way. This item on the itinerary is always meaningful to all pilgrims.
Because of the seminars and retreats we have conducted, the fifth station of the Way of the Cross always carries special meaning for us. It refers to the biblical episode in which Simon of Cyrene takes Jesus’ cross, and carries it for him (Mark 15:21). This biblical narrative is included in all the three Synoptic Gospels. The current traditional site for the station is located at the east end of the western fraction of the Via Dolorosa, adjacent to the Chapel of Simon of Cyrene, a Franciscan construction built in 1895. An inscription, in the architrave of one of the Chapel doors, references the Synoptic events.
Little is known about the biblical figure named Simon who carried the cross for Jesus. We do know that he came from Cyrene, which was the chief city of Cyrenaica in northern Africa (modern Libya). In NT times, it had a large Jewish population, a significant diaspora town. To go to Jerusalem, he would have to travel quite a distance, estimated at around 1,ooo miles. He went there, we can imagine, for the Passover – a lifetime ambition of foreign Jews – after having scraped and saved for some time in order to make that kind of pilgrimage. Knowing how difficult it is for many Christians back home to make the Holy Land pilgrimage on account of costs, we can feel how gratifying this trip must have meant to Simon.
And so it was going to be a major event in Simon’s life, and then this terrible indignity fell upon him. Of all that could possibly happen in Jerusalem, he was forced to carry a criminal convict’s cross to the hill of execution. What a shameful thing; such a humiliation. You see, Palestine was an occupied territory and any man might be impressed into the Roman service for any task. All that a Roman officer had to do was to tap a Jew or anybody for that matter on the shoulder with the flat of his spear, and the man had to carry out any task he was told to do, however menial and distasteful it might be. It so happened that this day, three criminals would be executed. It was the custom that a condemned criminal should carry his own cross and be paraded in public to the crucifixion scene outside the city by as long a route as possible, so that as many as possible might see and be warned. This recalls a familiar scene in Chinese movies featuring stories of years gone by when criminals were paraded round the town wearing a set of heavy wooden bars round their necks with their crime boldly written on them. But Jesus had been put through prolonged interrogation and incarceration in a dungeon most of the previous night, followed by terrible physical torture – scourging at the pillar and crowning with thorns. The first part was undertaken with relish by the religious authorities, the second carried out with delight under an official Roman criminal torture system by Roman soldiers who mocked the criminals. On the day of the crucifixion, Jesus was physically very exhausted, staggering under the weight of his cross. In his physical state, Jesus could not make it to Calvary carrying his own cross. He fell several times.
The Roman soldiers knew what to do. They grabbed Simon of Cyrene, who happened to be standing there watching the spectacle, and compelled him to carry the cross. To Simon, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Was he? It was a historical accident he could do without. But, was it?
But for having been forced into helping Jesus to carry the cross from the judgment seat of Pilate to Calvary, Simon of Cyrene would have remained a virtual unknown in this world. And yet, for two thousand years now and, we are sure, for many more thousand years to come, Simon of Cyrene will be remembered, and talked about, by humanity even after great public figures of today have long been consigned to forgotten history.
The beautiful thing about Simon of Cyrene is that he is so much like us. In life, we too, have often been forced by circumstances and people into doing things we rather not do. Simon’s story has so much potential for spiritual reflection that it might be useful to spend some time to imagine his experience with the Lord on Good Friday some 2,000 years ago and then see how we might draw inspirations for our own Christian living today.
To help in your imagination, we recommend that you watch about 12 minutes of relevant footage from Mel Gibson’s powerful movie “The Passion of the Christ”.
After that, join us on a brief 3-point reflection.
 From a hated assignment to a powerful conversion
Simon of Cyrene was a victim of circumstance. He did not volunteer to help; he did not want it; he did not plan it. He was seized as a passer-by, Scripture says, and forced into it. Simon’s bitter resentment at the time is understandable. Helping a scorned person, a convicted “blasphemer” in the Jewish capital, and carrying his cross, wasn’t exactly the kind of holiday Simon had in mind. He grumbled in disgust. In fact, it was down right humiliating. If you do not explain it properly to the people, you are easily “guilty by association”. Experienced with revulsion as something grossly unfair, Simon protested his innocence. “Why does this thing have to happen to me? Damn it!” Isn’t that exactly the way we feel about many things in life, especially when unfair and unjust burdens are put by others on our shoulders?
However, we have one small piece of information in Scripture which is crucial but is also easily ignored. Mark alone, and rather innocuously, tells us in 15:21 that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Mark’s Gospel was first written for Christians in Rome. Such a casual identification of the two can only mean that they were well known to the readers. And if we turn to the Letter to the Romans, we find Paul saying in 16:13 “Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine.” So you see, Rufus was so well known a Christian that Paul would describe him as “eminent in the Lord”. Furthermore, the mother of Rufus was so dear to Paul that he could even call her his mother as well. Evidently, the story about this Simon of Cyrene could not be a boring tale of a grumbler, complaining for the rest of his life about that most hated and unfortunate day when he was forced to carry the cross for that “criminal” Jesus of Nazareth, that “blasphemer” of our Jewish faith. No, something powerful must have happened to Simon on the way to Calvary with Jesus.
On that terrible day, Jesus captured Simon’s heart and converted Simon to himself. Simon became a Christian that day. That which to Simon had at first seemed his day of shame became his day of glory. His conversion was so powerful that he brought his entire household into the Christian fold. And his two sons, Alexander and Rufus, would go on to become very active and well-known contributors to the life and mission of the Church in Rome. Is that not a powerful story for all Christian families to learn from?
In his brilliant imagination, perhaps assisted by his theological adviser, director Mel Gibson wants us to know, not only did Simon stop grumbling, he was positively touched by the encounter with Jesus and, at the end, he went away blessed with a most precious gift – a heart of solidarity with the suffering Lord. To the point of “solidarity with the suffering Lord” we must turn.
 Christians are in Solidarity with the Suffering Lord
After the Last Supper and the washing of feet, our Lord Jesus proceeded to Gethsemane to pray, agonise and sweet blood. Three times he asked his close disciples, Peter, James and John to stay awake, keep watch and pray. His spiritual cross was heavy and he needed support. And then, on his way to Calvary, our Lord was physically exhausted and weak. His spiritual and physical crosses were heavy and he needed help. Here is a decisive difference between Christianity and all religions.
We think we are pious and spiritual because we remember God when we are in trouble and need his help. Human religiosity makes us look in times of distress to the power of God in the world. We lift up our hands in prayers and beg God to put things right for us. We fool ourselves by thinking that, unlike some people who use their own strength and capability instead of turning to God for help, we at least remember God and we do pray to Him for help. The danger, however, is that God is not really at the centre of our lives, in good times and in bad, when we need Him as well as when we have no urgent need of Him. Instead, God is banished to the periphery of our lives, to those areas which we are powerless to do and we call on Him as a last resort to work some minor miracles in our lives. We treat Him like our neglected “servant”. This kind of God is what we call a stop-gap-God, a God out of a slot-machine, deus ex machina, the God who appears at our beck and call. Honestly, we don’t need to become Christians to behave like that! The Chinese gangsters in town, who go to the temples to burn joss sticks and paper money to ask for good fortune and even run bare-footed on burning charcoal, would come to the so-called charismatic Mass whenever a famous charismatic faith healer came to town. They too, come to the “god of the circus”, hoping to get some goodies such as a miraculous healing of a certain illness, so that they can go back and do some more harm to society.
The story of Simon of Cyrene and many other stories in Scripture inform us of two crucial elements in the decisive difference between Christianity and other religions.
- First, while humanity looks in times of distress to the power of God in the world, the Bible directs Christians to God’s powerlessness and suffering. People in modern society are powerful and self-sufficient, scientifically and in various fields of knowledge. They do not need God. But if we do not understand God’s weakness – a God nailed to the cross – we cannot understand the power and glory of God.
- Second, Christians stand by God in His hour of grieving. That is what distinguishes Christians from pagans. Christians are summoned to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world, to watch and pray with Him in “Gethsemane” – the garden of agony anywhere in the world – for one hour, and to reach out and help Him when He is hungry and thirsty, sick and lonely, imprisoned and homeless.
 Carrying Jesus’ cross in our own lives
The cross laid on Simon of Cyrene reminds us that we must take part in Jesus’ suffering, and have a fellowship on his work. His merit, we know, is infinite. And yet, we also know that somehow, the sanctity of the Blessed Virgin, the blood of the Martyrs, the prayers and penances of the Saints, the good deeds of all the faithful, take part in Jesus’ work, however perfect it is without them. It is like adding a humble drop of water (representing us sinful humans) to and mingled with the wine (representing Christ the Son) in the chalice to be offered up to the Father at the altar.
The cross of Jesus appears in many forms.
[a] It says something about the cross we place on others’ shoulders.
Do we consciously or unconsciously put crosses on the shoulders of other members of the family? Do we escape from our share of responsibility and conveniently leave it all to others to carry the family burden?
[b] It says something about the cross we ourselves carry.
Many of the sorrows which come our way are not of our choosing. Let’s just run through a few examples at random:-
- Whenever you are the one who has to take care of an aging parent because circumstances arrange that you are the one who happens to be living close by or other siblings have happily pushed all the work to you.
- Whenever you have to carry on with a marriage when your spouse is so sick that s/he cannot help you, but is dependent on you for the rest of his/her life.
- Whenever you are the parent of a handicapped child and have to take care of him/her for the rest of your life, at great expense to your time and money and many sacrifices besides.
- Whenever you are the person to whom the emotionally or financially troubled colleague, friend or fellow Church member chooses to reach out.
- Whenever you are the one who is landed with the less-glamorous work that needs to be done but that no one wants to do.
- Whenever you are the one whose plans and dreams can be sacrificed because everyone else’s is deemed more important.
Henri Nouwen has given us a piercing insight. He wrote: “I used to get upset about all the interruptions to my work until one day I realized that the interruptions were my real work.”
Perhaps a “glaring” example which we so easily ignore is the life in a domestic monastery lived by every day saints:
- A mother raising young children lives in her domestic monastery. Perhaps in a more saintly way than professional contemplatives, she is forced, almost against her will, to stretch her heart. Her time is not her time; her own needs have to be kept at second place, and every time she turns around, a little hand is reaching out and demanding something. Whenever her domestic monastic bell rings, and it rings throughout the day and night at “odd times”, she is to drop things in mid-sentence, mid-sleep, mid-late-lunch, mid-laundry-or-dish-washing and respond, because it’s time for that activity and time is not her time but God’s time.
Pure earthly accidents, Karl Rahner said, often do make us responsible for what is divine and they conscript us to our real work in this life. Whenever you are the one whose life is disrupted by unwanted circumstance, you are Simon of Cyrene, helping Jesus carry his cross.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, April 2019. All rights reserved.
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