The second in a series of five addresses reflecting on characters appearing in the Gospel readings for each day of Holy Week from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
Moving from the eye-witness of Simon the leper in yesterday’s Gospel, we come to another Simon in the Prayer Book Gospel for today: Simon of Cyrene.
The eye-witness experience of this Simon is very far from the meal time memories enjoyed by Simon the leper. Simon of Cyrene’s role is summed up by Saint Mark in a few words, “And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross”.
Simon of Cyrene appears late in the Gospel story. Jesus has appeared before Pilate and Pilate has agreed that Jesus be crucified.
Jesus is then scourged, a cruel and agonising punishment. The scourge would have been a handle tied to which there would be strips of leather and stuck into the strips of leather would have been pieces of bone or lead. each time the victim was whipped with the scourge, these pieces would have stuck into the flesh and would have torn flesh away as the scourge was pulled back. By the time the scourging was complete, Jesus would have been bleeding profusely from numerous wounds.
Jesus would probably have been surrounded by four soldiers and would have been made to carry the beam of the cross, the upright being already at the place of execution. It would not be a piece of fine wood, but a rough piece of timber obtained from wherever it could be found. The soldiers would have had no liking for the task and probably behaved brutally towards victims.
Jesus begins the walk to Golgotha, carrying the rough hewn beam; to be made to carry the instrument of one’s death being a further punishment and humiliation. He had been up all night. He was exhausted. It was no surprise that he collapsed under the weight of the wood. The beam would have still had the bark and the knots on it, Jesus shoulders would have been raw and bleeding: even the touch of the wood would have caused him pain, yet he is expected to drag it through the streets. Jesus can simply go no further.
At this point, Simon of Cyrene comes into the story. The Roman authorities controlled Palestine and did so forcefully. To question a Roman soldier would have been to invite punishment. Standing there at the roadside, as did Simon, an order from a soldier was sufficient to stop you in whatever you were doing and to obey his instructions.
Simon had travelled a long way to be in Jerusalem for Passover. Cyrene is the modern city of Tripoli, the capital of Libya. It is hundreds of miles from Jerusalem. Had we been in Simon’s place, we would have been more than a little annoyed at being dragged into this matter.
Simon had probably spent years saving to enable him to make the pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Imagine having saved for so long to make this one special visit, perhaps the only chance in your entire life, and you get caught up in this local trouble. Simon would do as he was told, or face punishment himself.
Were we in Simon’s place, what might we have felt towards the people involved in this ghastly scene? Towards the Romans, we would no doubt have felt bitter; instead of getting ready for Passover, we are caught up in this horrific business. We might have felt that they should do their own dirty work, that they have no right to so overshadow this most special of festivals.
But what about Jesus? If we were in Simon’s place, how would we feel towards Jesus? Perhaps pity for the man, for an awful fate awaited him, but also, probably, a little resentment that we had become involved in something that was no concern of ours.
We don’t know what became of Simon of Cyrene after he had carried out his morbid duty, but we have some idea that he became one of the first members of the Christian church. Saint Mark tells us this in a few words, he calls Simon “the father of Alexander and Rufus”. Clearly, Mark’s readers would have known who Alexander and Rufus were. They must have been church members for Mark’s readers to be familiar with them, and, if they were church members, it seems likely they would have heard about Jesus from their father, Simon.
Standing there, in Simon’s place, and watching Jesus, perhaps it is not hard to understand how Simon became one of the first church members. Standing there, Simon would probably have gone through a series of feelings, from annoyance to curiosity, from curiosity to amazement, and from amazement to faith.
Simon had travelled from distant Libya. He had come up to Jerusalem to fulfil his lifetime’s ambition, to be in Jerusalem for Passover. But it is not fulfilling his ambition that changes him, it is this chance meeting with Jesus that changes his life.
If we had been standing there in Simon’s place, watching as they hammered in the nails, watching as Jesus was hung up to die, what would we have made of Jesus?
If we had been in Simon’s place, would we have been numbered among those they called Christians?