"As they led him away, they seized a man,
Simon of Cyrene,
who was coming from the country,
and they laid the cross on him
and made him carry it behind Jesus."
--Luke 23.26 (NRSV)
For years I thought that Simon stepped forward and offered to carry Jesus’ cross. Not so. Simon was simply a face in the crowd watching Jesus struggle and then fall. A Roman soldier pointed to him and yelled, “You. You carry his cross.” And the soldier pushed Simon forward. So three gospels record the story of how he found his way into the Passion narrative. Every list of the Stations of the Cross shows Simon carrying Jesus’ cross.
Scholars think that this Simon was simply a passerby in Jerusalem who had come to celebrate Passover. And yet the church kept the story of this bit player who took Jesus’ cross and carried it up the hill. Why would Simon of Cyrene figure so prominently in the memory of the early church? He was no hero as many of our sermons have preached. This was a man compelled to carry a heavy load that belonged to someone else. Perhaps this may be one of the reasons we find this man as the central character in Jesus’ mid-point journey. He speaks to all those who carry the burden of someone weary and heavy laden. Of all the players in the Passion drama I think I would rather have been Simon of Cyrene who, against his will, picked up Jesus’ heavy crossbeam when the Lord fell underneath his heavy load.
We all remember some Simon who simply did what life thrust upon them. Those who have shouldered our burdens and made our lives far better than they would have been. I think of my mother who worked in a textile mill from age sixteen until she retired in her sixties. She had two boys and she never complained about the hard work or the responsibility of rearing two children with very little money. There was black Nancy who worked for us and when I found myself depressed she would say, over and over, “Roger—it’s gonna be all right.” There was my High School Spanish teacher that listened and nudged me toward college. On graduation night she drove across town to pick up a friend and me and took us to a fine restaurant to celebrate the occasion. But my list goes on and on. That seminary teacher that encouraged me to write. The wise man in my first church that listened to my fears and encouraged me. My wife who kept saying you can do it when I wondered. I have been surrounded by a great multitude of Simons that helped make my burdens bearable.
These Simons are all around us. The man who cares for his wife patiently even though she cannot remember his name. Those battalions of parents who tend their special need children who will never graduate or leave home. The Doctor that kept his Down syndrome baby when everyone suggested adoption or an institution. All those unnamed ones who despite their own problems, can be found at a Habitat project, serving Meals on Wheels, working in a downtown mission.
Simon’s life was never the same because of that crossbeam that was forced upon his shoulders. His two sons became leaders in the early church. I wonder if in carrying Jesus’ cross his life was changed and his children noted the difference. I cannot imagine my own journey without those who helped carry my load and cheer me on. In that doing—they have opened my eyes to those that need along the way. No wonder this is my favorite Station of the Cross.
We all begin as passer-bys. Against our wills we are called to pick up someone else’s burden and do what we can. So looking at this Sixth Station let us remember our own Simons. Let us look and listen to all those who bear heavy loads. Perhaps lending a hand may just do for us what surely happened to Simon years ago.
The nurse in a hospital room may have never heard of Simon of Cyrene. Yet she goes about her very hard job. As she did the dirty messy job of changing a man’s bedclothes, cleaning up his soiled bed, washing and meeting his needs—the old man in the bed rose up and said, “I wouldn’t do what you do for all the money in the world.” And the nurse continued her work and replied, “Neither would I.”
(The contemporary renderings of the Stations of the Cross are done by artist, Cecile L. K. Martin of Seneca, South Carolina. The original art work can be found in her home parish, St. Paul the Apostle Church in Seneca, SC. If you are interested in Ms. Martin's work you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)