I never thought very deeply about the story of Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry His cross. Wasn't he just a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, an insignificant, curious passer-by, as he was referred to in the Scripture, who was randomly picked from the crowd? All three synoptic gospel writers recorded this event. In one of the Stations of the Cross we commemorate it. There must be more here than meets the eye.
Where is Cyrene? I was surprised to find that it is in North Africa not far from the modern day city of Benghazi in Libya which was prominently in the news after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2012!
I searched for more information, I found that a condemned person was forced to bear his own instrument of torture, in this case at least the heavy crossbeam of a cross. But the soldiers didn't want a prisoner to die on the way up the hill to his crucifixion because that would spare him from the planned cruel torture of a deliberately slow and painful execution. A criminal was crucified in a public place where it would serve as a warning and deterent to would-be evildoers. Jesus was already staggering under the weight of the crossbeam and falling repeatedly from extreme weakness after his agonizing, prolonged scourging by the soldiers.
In various translations of this biblical passage Simon was said to have been “pressed into service” or “seized” or “compelled.” He obviously didn't volunteer; he had no choice; he was forced to do so at the point of a spear.
Who was this Simon whom Mark so precisely identifies that he even records the names of his sons and that he had come to Jerusalem from “the country” or “the fields.” Since Mark wrote his gospel for Jewish believers, it is likely that by the time he wrote the gospel story the inclusion of the names of his sons in Mark 15:21 may suggest that they were of some standing in the Early Christian community. Tradition says that Simon's sons Rufus and Alexander became missionaries; It has also been suggested that the Rufus mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:13 is the son of Simon of Cyrene.
Libya is separated from the Holy Land by Egypt. Simon would have had to cross Egypt by land or come by sea. Libya was under Roman rule at that time but there was a Greek colony in North Libya along the Mediterranean Sea with a large settlement of Judean Jews. Most of Libya is covered by the Sahara desert except for that long strip of Northern coastline where eighty percent of Libya's people live. Cyrene became an early center of Christianity in the centuries after the Church began to spread. Some also link Simon with the "men of Cyrene" in Acts 11:20 who preached the gospel to the Greeks—the Cyrenians would have known how to speak Greek.
Why was Simon there in the crowd that was following Jesus to Golgotha? Were his sons with him? Were they adults or children? Was he a laborer or a wealthy foreign businessman? Was he a Jew from the diaspora or a dark-skinned Libyan native? Was Simon a believer in Jesus already when he carried Jesus' cross? Was he a devout Jew who was making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover according to the requirement of Judaism? Or was he only a curious pagan caught up in the drama of a Roman execution until he became part of what was a life-changing event for himself and his sons and perhaps his heritage for generations to come?
Simon, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Did you stay at the cross after you carried it up the hill for Jesus and watch salvation history unfold? Were your sons at the crucifixion with you? “Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?” Did you become a Christian as a result of seeing Jesus die on the cross or perhaps hearing the witness of the disciples about Jesus' resurrection? (Someone ought to write a novel about this man!)
Simon, “Were you there when the Holy Spirit came?” Were you among the 120 in the Upper Room? In the biblical account of the birth of the Church on Pentecost in Acts chapter two in the list of places from which people were present at the event, “the districts of Libya near Cyrene” was noted. Simon, “Were you there?” We can only speculate.
What is the take-away insight for us from this special event? In His suffering humanity and to accomplish His mission from His Father, Jesus allowed Simon to help carry His cross. He could have called ten thousand angels to strengthen Him to carry the heavy cross, but He permitted and welcomed a mortal man to help Him. In His teaching before the crucifixion Jesus spoke about the necessity of taking up our cross and following Him. (Matthew 16:24) On the way to Golgotha Simon didn't carry his own cross; he carried Jesus' cross.
We can't do what Simon did. We can't carry Jesus' cross. Jesus gave His life once for all on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and to obtain eternal life for us. So then, how can we bear Jesus' cross for Him now? Jesus declared that whatsoever we do for others or to others, we do as if we did it unto Him. The Lord receives it as literally done to Him! (Matthew 25:35-46) In practice then, we are to bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
Each of us has unique personal crosses to bear as well as burdens, afflictions, and problems. There is a sense in which we must with courage and God's enabling accept and bear our own cross, the cross that God has given us in His love. By this we glorify Him and give witness to Him. However, there is a further sense in which we should reach out in love and compassion to help others shoulder their crosses as Simon of Cyrene did for Jesus. By so doing, we are privileged to partake in Jesus' suffering, “For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for His sake.” (Philippians 1:29)
an alms of the all-merciful love of God.
Saint Francis de Sales