March 3, 2005
Cicero, the great forensic orator and philosopher of the first century before Christ, called it “a most cruel and disgusting penalty” (
Verrem 18.104.22.168). The Roman playwright Seneca, living at the time of Christ, said, “the very name ‘cross’ should not only be far from the body of a Roman citizen, but also from his thoughts, his eyes and his ear” (
Epistle 101.14). Crucifixion had been practiced long before the Romans began to use it as a punishment for the lower class of society. Slaves, soldiers and criminals were crucified. Roman citizens were spared. In the East, the Greeks would impale a criminal already executed and dead on a cross as a social deterrent. The Romans perfected the cruelty. They crucified their victims alive. Always on a crowded street. The death was slow; the agony, long. And many people could watch. It was a brutal recompense for offenses against the state.
As the soldiers lead Jesus to a little hill outside a gate leading into Jerusalem, they begin to worry. The spectators might miss their show. The scourging had been too fierce. The pieces of bone fastened to the leather straps that had lashed again and again against the body of Jesus had ripped open his flesh. The blood was bathing the pavement. Some criminals never made it to the cross. The soldiers fear Jesus will die before Pilate’s order for crucifixion is carried out.
The gruesome parade passes through the city wall. The onlookers press close to see the victim. Some simply scorn his suffering. Others feel pity for his undeserved plight. The anxious soldiers catch sight of a man coming in from the countryside. Mark identifies this man as “a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mk 15:21). Simon is stumbling into one of the most unforgettable roles in the drama of redemption. Luke tells us they grab hold of him. The Greek word
epilambanesthai conjures up the image of the soldiers’ hands reaching out and seizing Simon (Lk 23:26). They impress him into service. In fact, the very word Mark and Matthew use, the Greek word
aggareuein, indicates someone being forced into government service (Mk 15:21; Mt 27:32).
But Simon is being pressed into service of an authority higher than Rome. The soldiers place the crossbeam on him. The early Christians knew that the upright beam was already in place at the execution site. Simon is compelled to carry Jesus’ burden. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laid down the law of the kingdom of God. He had said, “And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles” (Mt 5:41). Thus the unwelcome necessity becomes a cheerful grace. In accepting the cross of Christ on his shoulders, Simon fulfills that law.
Simon drags the crossbeam. Luke points out that he carries it behind Jesus (Lk 22:26). Jesus goes first. Simon physically walks in his footsteps. Jesus leads. Simon follows. It is the way of discipleship. Simon is literally beginning his walk with Jesus. Jesus stops his own funeral procession and consoles the weeping women of Jerusalem. Simon listens. Even in his suffering, Jesus thinks more of others’ fate than his own. His vision is not blurred by the blood falling from his brow. He sees to the ultimate consequences of sin and warns the women to repent. This is more than human. Good example, even at great cost to oneself and in the most painful of circumstances, is not without effect. Simon is moved. From the unwilling passer-by, he becomes the generous cooperator with Jesus in his redemptive death.
Simon comes from Cyrene, a capital city in North Africa. There were Jews already in that city (Acts 6:9; 11:20; 13:1). Simon’s name could be either Jewish or Greek. There is no way of knowing whether he is a Gentile or Jew. And this is not without meaning. As Paul teaches, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, between slaves and freemen, between men and women, you are all one in union with Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). All people are called to salvation in Christ. “…Jesus Christ has a significance and a value for the human race and its history, which are unique and singular, proper to him alone, exclusive, universal, and absolute. Jesus is, in fact, the Word of God made man for the salvation of all” (
Dominus Jesus, 15). All of us are called to carry the cross of Christ.
Tradition astutely identifies Simon as a Christian. Mark makes a point of reminding us that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus. This little detail informs us that these two individuals were well known to the community for which the evangelist writes his gospel. Following in the footsteps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, Simon led the way for his family. The faith of a parent spills over into the home and provides the environment for the children to become strong Christians. Good example is the best teacher.
The soldiers conscripted Simon to be part of Jesus’ death march. They made sure they had a victim to offer up to the demanding rabble. But their actions did much more. They etched into the memory of Christian tradition an unforgettable image of true discipleship. The Christians who first read Mark’s gospel were facing persecution and death in Rome. To those first century Christians and to Christians of every age and place who face opposition and persecution and at times even death, Simon remains a living monument of Jesus’ words, “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross every day and follow me” ( Lk 9:23). The cross is not a coincidence in the Christian life. It is the very plan of salvation.