“As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. (Luke 23: 26)
In a sense, Simon of Cyrene was the first person “to take up [his] cross.” He just happened along-in the wrong place at the wrong time- and was commandeered for the unpleasant duty. Soldiers could insist that you carry their pack one mile, remember, and Jesus had encouraged his listeners to go an extra mile.
This certainly constituted an extra mile for Simon.
Was he picked because he was a foreigner? Did he have a different skin-colour perhaps. Is there a hint of racism here? “On his way in from the country” sounds rather vague, but “Cyrene” is modern Tripoli, in North Africa. He was a long way from home.
One thing is sure. Something happened to him on that day that he was never able to forget.
I say that because the only reason that he would be identified in the text by name would be if his name came to be known by those who wrote these accounts. And it is a high probability too that he came to identify himself as a Christian.
That being so, it is with extraordinary interest that I look at the picture above, the two men with meaty, peasant hands, support one another to get a tough job done. And there is no going back from such camaraderie, no forgetting what happened.
Even the centurion on duty noticed something above and beyond the usual, when he said “Truly, this man was the son of God.” How much more then, for Simon, grunting and sweating under the load of rough, splintery timber, experienced kinship and a yoked-partnership with Christ.
It seems like the acting out of a contorted version of Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, andyou will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
The yoke that Simon discovered was not easy, and nor was the burden light…
But did he learn something? Did he find rest?
The fact that his name is written here suggests that he did.
He learnt that to walk with Christ is to forsake the world. It means to live in the midst of your enemies. That’s how Martin Luther put it: ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people.”
Bonhoeffer said the same: “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.”
And more than this, Simon would have learnt of the meaning of the cross, for he encountered at first hand something of the suffering of Christ. It was gifted to him and it was not lightly borne.
“Our tendency in the midst of suffering is to turn on God. To get angry and bitter and shake our fist at the sky and say, “God, you don’t know what it’s like! You don’t understand! You have no idea what I’m going through. You don’t have a clue how much this hurts.”
The cross is God’s way of taking away all of our accusations, excuses, and arguments.
The cross is God taking on flesh and blood and saying, “Me too.” (Rob Bell)
Simon had no opportunity to shake his fist at the sky, but he could see in the blood on his own hands what evil did. He could see the evil that humanity was capable of: belligerent bullying, casual cruelty, murder in the name of justice, oppression and tyranny… And later, perhaps, he would learn of the deceit and treachery that had led to this point. He would hear of Judas, and Peter too, and Pilate, and the Pharisees. And this long, sad, trail of sin led to the point where he walked alone with Jesus.
And what did he make of Jesus? I’ve no doubt that he would have sensed -as Pilate did – that here was an innocent man. He would have been surprised at the hatred Jesus had evoked, and perhaps asked why. Maybe it had already occurred to him, that if the volume of hate was so loud, perhaps there was something important in the teaching of Jesus that the Authorities were trying to bulldoze into submission.
All this would have churned in his mind as he pushed forward, carrying the cross.
He had taken Jesus’ yoke upon him, and learnt much about him. But did he find rest?
No, only questions and the provocation to ask more questions.
But when Jesus rose, something totally new and unexpected would have rejigged all those questions, and then, perhaps, Simon would have found his rest.
In 1941, E.L.Sukenik discovered a burial cave in the Kidron Valley, belonging to Cyrenian Jews and dating before AD 70. Curiously, it was found to have an ossuary inscribed twice in Greek “Alexander son of Simon.” It cannot, however, be certain that this refers to the same person.
But you wonder.