We have been here before, in fact twice already. This is no strange experience of déjà vu, no trick of the memory. Jesus falls for the third time and this time it is different. The last stage of the race, the last part of the journey, the last stretch before the end, the pain barrier that has to be crossed, the final push, it is a hard part and the demands are too much. Jesus collapses into the dust and the dirt and he cannot get back up. All the beating and the kicks, the lashes, the vile words, nothing can get him out of the dirt and onto his feet again. He lies there, battered, bruised, bleeding.
We might imagine, because we don’t in fact know, that the cross beam was taken off Simon for the last stage of the journey. He was pushed back into the crowd. His journey began as spectator, then it became humiliation as he was forced to take part in this parade of death and ignominy, and then it became participation as he shared with Jesus in this journey. And now, as the soldiers and the condemned man moved off towards the wall and the gate that led out of the city into the barren area where the crucifixion would take place, what did Simon feel – admiration, love, a desire to follow? It could have been any of those things. But we must be careful; we are always in danger on this journey though the Stations of the Cross, on this journey Calvary Bound, over romanticising what was going on.
Perhaps Simon simply felt relief, the ordeal for him was over and he had been able to step back into the crowd from which he had come and step back into obscurity. But we already know that that was not what happened. As he was forced to take the cross, all the way back at the Fifth Station we reflected on the fact that we knew his name and the names of his sons and that that must have been for a reason. Simon of Cyrene was a ‘known person’ a ‘named person’. He didn’t just step back into the obscurity of the crowd. Sharing the cross, bearing the weight, being with Jesus had changed him, changed his life. And as he watched, as he felt that initial sense of relief at the ordeal being over, was he then overtaken by a desire, an impulse, was he driven to follow.
There was room to make his way through the crowd and towards the wall and the gate. It would not be hard to keep up. Progress was frustratingly slow, and especially for the soldiers who wanted the job to be over so that they could get back out of the dangerous streets into the security of the fortress and their barracks. Already today it had looked as though a riot would break out when the bargain was struck about the release of the insurrectionist, Barabbas. He was free and on the streets along with many other zealots who would only be too ready to take advantage of the tension around to have ‘a bit of fun’ with the Romans and see how far they could push their desire for freedom from the oppressor. And who would be the ones to suppress this? They would be. The sooner this was over, the better.
So Simon had no problem keeping up and as the soldiers, with Jesus in their midst, passed through the gate and the upright of the cross, to which the crossbeam would be lashed, being seen for the first time, the crowd sighs and Jesus collapses. He will not rise from where he has fallen.
When I was growing up children’s parties were not as sophisticated as they seem to be nowadays. Our tastes were simple or at least modified by what was available. We might have liked to go ‘paint balling’ but it hadn’t been invented. Instead there was jelly and cake, paper hats and special serviettes, and of course games. The favourites were ‘Pass-the-Parcel’ which in practice meant wrapping a tube of ‘Smarties’ in 23 layers of heavily sellotaped newspaper; Blind-Man’s-Buff which involved a scarf and multiple bruising; ‘Oranges and Lemons’ which meant we had to sing and of course, ‘Follow-my-leader’.
The rules of ‘Follow-my-leader’ are simple. One child is the ‘leader’, the rest copy the actions of the leader and are eliminated from the game if they don’t (normally this involved tears at the parties I was at.) I saw on the BBC website a clip showing children playing the game as a way of helping them to understand what it means to be a Christian disciple, to be a follower of Jesus. We watch him and imitate his actions and if we do that then our lives will reflect his life, we will be ‘Christ-like.’
Simon watches Jesus, face down, kicked and beaten in the dust. Then, when the soldiers realise that he isn’t going to move on his own accord they grab him and drag him the short distance remaining, the skin of his legs being ripped apart by the sharp stones which formed the surface of the ground there.
And Simon decides ‘I want to follow him. I want to be like him. I want Jesus to be my leader’.
It seems unlikely, against all logic. Why follow a failure? How can this image of powerlessness be anything worth giving your life to? How can this be inspirational, how can this be hope, life, vision, future, love? How can this be what I want to be?
Why do you follow Jesus – if you do? Why do I follow Jesus? Surely God could have provided us with a better model of leadership, a better image of power, a more robust form of authority. Why give us a broken man, a man of dust in the dust to pin our hopes to?
John Donne in his powerful poem ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’ exposes with real honesty this problem
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn?
I dare not look upon him, but he is my leader, my model, my Lord, my God. And why?
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1.25)
I cannot bear to look,
I cannot bear to watch,
for where you are I am,
battered by life,
bruised and sore,
dust in dust.
As you are raised
so may I be raised with you.