I’ve always had a bit of a fascination in the small characters who appear in the passion accounts – the man with the jar of water (who signals where the upper room is), Veronica (who in the non-scriptural Stations of the Cross, wipes Jesus’ face for him on the Via Dolorosa), the man who runs away naked in the garden at Jesus’ arrest, the girl who insists Peter was one of Jesus’ disciples, Joseph of Arimathea who offers to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body and gives up his family tomb for him…
But this year, one character above them all stands out for me and that is Simon of Cyrene. Simon is an African from Cyrene (modern day Libya), perhaps a Jew who has taken the costly trip to Jerusalem especially for Passover. Or maybe he wasn’t Jewish, we just don’t know why he is in Jerusalem but there he is, caught up in the crowd watching Jesus trying to carry his cross to Golgotha – the site of his execution. Mark’s gospel (Mark 15:21) has the rather wonderful aside that he is the father of Alexander and Rufus. He adds this detail assuming the readers (or hearers) of his gospel would know exactly who he is referring to. Clearly, following the crucifixion and resurrection, this family from Cyrene became followers of Jesus.
Why does Simon of Cyrene stand out for me this year? Well we are all a bit like him. We’ve come prepared for celebrating Holy Week and Easter but we have got caught up in the story in a way we didn’t deserve or expect. Simon was forced by the Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross for him. This is likely to be because if a criminal died before receiving their due punishment, the soldiers in charge may have been given the punishment they failed to execute. Jesus has been flogged – probably to within an inch of his life. The Roman soldiers do not want Jesus to die before he gets to the execution site and so they compel Simon to carry Jesus’ cross for him.
We’ve been compelled by this horrible virus to carry a cross. We have been compelled to experience the way of the cross alongside Jesus. We are all Simon this year. But remember that little hint of hope, Mark tells us that Simon is the one who is Alexander and Rufus’ dad! The people in our congregation! There is life beyond this time we’re going through. It may be Friday, but Sunday’s always coming.
I think this painting by Sieger Köder really expresses this well:
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