14 April 2022

Simon the Cyrenian, the man who carried Jesus’s cross.

Mark 15.21, Matthew 27.32, Luke 23.26.

Enroute to Golgotha, leading Jesus to the place they’d crucify him, the Romans decided he was inadequate to carry his crossbeam.

Movies and art, following St. Francis’s lists of the stations of the cross, depict Jesus falling over a bunch of times. The gospels don’t, but who knows?—maybe he did. He had been up all night and flogged half to death. Between sleep deprivation and blood loss, carrying a hundred-pound crossbeam would’ve been too much for anyone. (No, not the 300-pound full cross we see in paintings, such as the El Greco painting in my “Stations of the Cross” image. Even healthy convicts would’ve found that unmanageable.)

The Roman senate made it legal for soldiers to draft conquered peoples—basically anyone in the Roman Empire who lacked citizenship—into temporary service. Jesus referred to this law when he taught us to go the extra mile. Mt 5.41 So the Romans grabbed an able-bodied passerby to carry Jesus’s crossbeam. And since he later became Christian and his sons became bishops, the writers of the gospels mentioned him by name: Simon the Cyrenian (or “of Cyrene”).

Mark 15.21 KWL
The Romans draft a passerby,
a certain Simon the Cyrenian who’s coming from the fields,
the father of Alexander and Rufus,
so he’d carry Jesus’s crossbeam.
Matthew 27.32 KWL
Coming out, the Romans find a Cyrenian person named Simon.
This man, they compel
to take up Jesus’s crossbeam.
Luke 23.26 KWL
While the Romans lead Jesus away,
taking hold of Simon, a certain Cyrenian coming from the fields,
they lay the crossbeam upon him
to carry behind Jesus.

Simon’s suffering.

Most of the time, when we Christians talk about Simon the Cyrenian, we pause from discussing Jesus’s suffering, and briefly talk about Simon’s suffering. Here’s this poor guy, coming in from the fields. Maybe he’s a local, and he’d been out farming or gleaning. Maybe a pilgrim, in Jerusalem for Passover, and he happened to take the wrong shortcut. Maybe his kids were with him; maybe not.

In any event he was likely looking forward to dropping off his gear, having a mikveh (in part because he had to be ritually clean for Passover), and having a nice seder dinner. And on the way into Jerusalem, a bunch of nasty pagan occupying troops grab him, and make him carry some blood-soaked convict’s crossbeam.

True, the Romans were awful. They’d crucify innocent people all the time. They cared about peace, not justice, so if you were anywhere near a disturbance of the peace, they’d crucify you too. Then again they did crucify guilty people, like the thieves who got crucified either side of Jesus. But regardless of why they were crucifying Jesus, Simon’s reaction may have been that of anyone who believes in karma: “There’s gotta be some good reason God” (or the universe) “is allowing this guy to get crucified. Had to’ve done something evil.” People simply refuse to accept the fact we live in a meaningless universe. That’s why most of us do believe in karma.

So even if he knew precisely who Jesus was, part of Simon was likely eyeing him suspiciously. If he’s really Messiah, why’s God permitting this?

And there’s the likelihood Jesus’s blood freaked him out a little. Blood freaks lots of people out. Nowadays we know it carries disease, so we avoid it just in case it’s contagious. But back then, blood was considered holy. ’Cause God said it was. Ge 9.5 Spill human blood without permission and you get in trouble. Bleed and you’re ritually unclean. Lv 15.2-3 Touch a bleeder and you’re unclean too. Lv 15.7

It’s unlikely this was a brand-new crossbeam; the Romans reused their crosses. There’s every chance this crossbeam already had blood on it: The dried blood of every victim previously nailed to it, and the fresh blood of Jesus smeared all over it. If Simon wasn’t already ritually unclean (and to be fair, that ordinarily happens in life) he was definitely unclean after touching blood. And flesh: Jesus had been flogged, so little chunks of him were likely in the wood. Eww.

Some artists depict Simon carrying the cross with Jesus—and even carrying Jesus a little. That’s not how Luke describes it. Still, the crossbeam was a heavy enough burden on its own, and Simon had to lug it all the way to Golgotha… staring at Jesus’s tattered back.

Let’s not be heartless; let’s acknowledge Simon suffered. But the stations of the cross are about remembering Jesus’s suffering, which was far greater than Simon’s. So now let’s get back to Jesus.

Jesus, suffering through Simon.

Bad enough that Jesus had to go through this procession to Golgotha. But because he lacked the strength to carry his crossbeam himself, some other poor soul got dragged into his drama, and was made to suffer this part for him. And that had to bother Jesus.

The whole point of the cross was to take our sins away, defeat evil, end our suffering. Yet here the Romans were, making Simon the Cyrenian suffer on Jesus’s behalf, making him carry Jesus’s crossbeam, when the whole point was for Jesus to carry Simon’s crossbeam. And mine. And yours. Jesus wanted to spare humanity of pain and suffering and death. But because he was weak at that time, Simon had to bear some of the pain Jesus was trying to spare him. Simon was forced to flinch, up close, at the horror Jesus was going through. And unless he was gonna start calling down angels to stop everything, there was practically nothing Jesus could do to stop it.

Just like all the other things which go on among humanity. We generate a lot of chaos, violence, inhumanity towards one another, and callous apathy towards human suffering. Jesus wants to do away with all of it. Not add to it. Never add to it. No doubt it bothered Jesus greatly how his inability meant Simon would have to do this for him.

So that’s why I spent a bit of time describing Simon’s suffering: Jesus suffered because Simon suffered. He’s our sympathetic, compassionate Lord. He doesn’t dismiss our suffering. He cares enough to suffer with us.