It is not just we who are recognising that the prisoner, Jesus, is finding it hard on this journey from the place of condemnation to the place of crucifixion, along this road of sorrows. The journey has just begun but already he has fallen. The weight of the cross beam is bearing down on him, the sun is rising and the heat is building in the close streets that make up the city. The crowds are building as people emerge from their houses.
And there are more people around than usual. This is Passover and people have come to Jerusalem to share the greatest of the festivals with family and friends and amongst them are those who have come as pilgrims from the diaspora. There are many in the Jewish community who live outside of the country. Travel and communications were much more sophisticated than sometimes we give credit for. Boats plied the Mediterranean, ships loaded with goods for sale in foreign markets, news travelled fast, in the Roman world troops were being transported to the next hotspot where a rebellion had to be suppressed. New ideas found their way into communities, people moved to follow work, there were celebrities, writers, actors, orators, teachers, all on the move. There would be many features of life with which we would be familiar.
So it was right that people would make the pilgrimage back home, at the significant time of the year. One of my favourite Christmas songs is that sung by Chris Rea, ‘Driving home for Christmas’ and the verse
It’s gonna take some time
But I’ll get there
Top to toe in tailbacks
Oh, I got red lights on the run
But soon there’ll be a freeway
Get my feet on holy ground.
There is something religious in this journey that the singer makes, that sense of the pilgrimage, the purposeful journey with a spiritual intent, even if that intent is being with family. But that line ‘Get my feet on holy ground’ brings us to the crowds who are thronging the streets of Jerusalem through which Jesus is struggling.
We recognise his pain, his agony. But we are not alone. His mother, Mary, has seen it and it was like a sword through her heart, through her soul, to see the child she bore, the son she loves, the man she follows in such pain. And one of the soldiers recognises it as well.
St Mark tells us
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. (Mark 15.21)
Were the soldiers feeling compassionate, were they feeling frustrated, were they bored already, wanting to get there and a non-too pleasant job done and ‘another one’ dispatched? We are told nothing of their motivation and it could have been that the better side of human nature was winning through – it does happen and we shouldn’t be cynical about what happens here and in other situations where help is given – the ‘what’s in it for them’ kind of question.
Whatever their reason, the guard around the prisoner look for help. Carrying the cross is not their job, so they look for someone else. They see someone from out of town, a black face in the crowd, and they pull him out to give the prisoner a hand.
The one they fix on we are told is Simon. He is one of those who have arrived in Jerusalem, presumably for the Festival. We don’t know why he was there, just that he was. But it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility to suppose that he had come in for the festival.
Mark tells us his name and where he comes from. He’s from Cyrene, which is part of modern day Libya. Cyrene had been settled by the Greeks but by the time of the crucifixion was home to a larger number of Greek-speaking or Hellenistic Jews. Simon could have been born there of Jewish parents, he could have been a convert, he could have been a North African, he could have been black. All of this is speculation of course. What we do know that he was out of town and that he was forced to help.
I can’t imagine he was eager. Criminals carried the cross to the place of execution; Simon was no criminal. He didn’t know the prisoner, had no connection with him. Why should he do it?
Of course the simple answer was that he was forced to do it, he wanted to avoid the lash that would have followed refusal. He had no choice really and we mustn’t romanticise this event, that isn’t fair to Simon and it isn’t honest. What is honest is that taking up the cross for Jesus had a profound effect.
The reason we can say that is because of the information Mark gives us. Mark is not normally big on unnecessary detail. He is so eager to get on with the story that he doesn’t want to be held up by embellishments in the text. But he gives us more information than Matthew and Luke who also record this episode on the Via Dolorosa that we remember at this station.
Mark tells us that ‘he was the father of Alexander and Rufus.’ The fact that he says this must mean that they were known to the first audience, the first readers of the gospel. The sons of Simon must have been significant members of the early church. Was this Rufus the same one that Paul greets in his Letter to the Romans (Romans 16.13), whose mother, perhaps Simon’s wife was ‘a mother to me’, to Paul?
Was Simon still in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost part of the crowd wanting to hear Peter, one of those on whom the Holy Spirit fell because Cyrenians are mentioned as those who heard in their own native language? Was Simon a member of the Synagogue of Freedmen, mentioned in (Acts 6.9) which contained, as we know Jews from many other provinces?
All we can say with confidence is that the sons of this press-ganged man were part of the early Christian community and so well known that it was worth halting the account to mention them. And that says to me that carrying the cross, even reluctantly at first, was a converting experience for Simon. He was not the same again, this was his ‘Damascus Road experience’ but on another road, a road paved in sorrow.
I often act out of a sense of duty, I’m just not as good as I should be or pretend to be. But duty, my duty as a Christian, my duty as a priest forces me, compels me to do the right thing, the better thing. Perhaps as I continue to grow and deepen as a Christian, things may be different, but perhaps they won’t be. But my reluctance doesn’t alter the efficacy of my actions and doesn’t stop me from serving Christ in my neighbour, it’s just that …. sometimes … I am reluctant. And then I meet Christ!
Lord, may I recognise you
in the face of my brother, my sister, in need.
And, however I am feeling,
may I respond with compassion
and bear the weight
of their cross.