It is about one of the bit-part players in the passion story; Simon of Cyrene, the man pressed into service by the Romans to help carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha. We don’t know much about Simon except that he came from Cyrene, obviously, a city in modern day Libya. There was a thriving Jewish community there, and his Jewish name suggests he was part of it. If that’s the case he was probably in Jerusalem for the Passover, as many other Jews from around the world were. Perhaps he came every year, or perhaps it was a once in a lifetime trip. But what is certain is that he hadn’t come expecting to be caught up in a crucifixion, let alone to find himself carrying a cross. He had probably never even heard of Jesus. Cyrene was a long way away; why would anyone have taken notice of stories of an obscure Galilean prophet there?
But here he is, caught up in a tragedy that is not at all of his making, made to bear a burden that is none of his business, none of his fault. What does he feel? We aren’t told. He might feel compassion or a sense of solidarity with Jesus, a Jew like him, suffering at the hands of an unjust occupying force. He might, though, feel revulsion too – this cross is probably already blood-stained from Christ’s bleeding back. He might feel shame; what if people think that he is the one who is being crucified? He might feel fear. It was a dangerous thing to come to the notice of the Romans; far better to keep your head down. He might feel anger and resentment both at the soldiers and at Jesus – why should he have to do this? There’s a lot left unsaid in this story, a lot we don’t know, but perhaps because of that Simon of Cyrene can become a very rich focus for reflection for us.
The fact is that there are times in our lives when we all probably feel like Simon, carrying the burdens of others. Some of those burdens might be willingly shouldered; supporting someone we love through illness or a difficult time in their lives, perhaps. But the fact that we love them doesn’t necessarily mean those loads don’t feel heavy, and it is only human to find that tough at times.
Other burdens might be landed on us against our will, though, as this one is on Simon. We might find ourselves dragged into the mess others have made, with loads inflicted on us through their thoughtlessness or downright evil, having to try to sort out problems we had no part in creating.
Victims of abuse or other crimes may suffer the effects of what has been done to them for a lifetime, although they had done nothing to deserve it. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Simon. Whatever the root cause of the things they have endured, it wasn’t their fault, not their burden, but they are the ones left bearing it.
There are also many whose professional life brings them face to face with the pain of others, and sometimes with the worst of human nature too; doctors and nurses, police officers and fire-fighters, social workers and teachers – and priests too, among others. The fact that it is a job, or even a vocation, doesn’t make it any less challenging or exhausting to confront that suffering.
I came across a story told by a hospice chaplain, Tom Gordon*, which seemed to me to capture this perfectly.
"The door of Sam’s room had been left open by the nurses. His family’s distress was obvious – his wife holding his hand, his daughter with her arm round her mum, his son staring out of the open window – as they waited for Sam to die. I wanted to go in and meet this family in their sorrow. But I had nothing to offer, no clever words to say. I only glanced into the room as I passed, a spectator of their pain and grief.
It could not and would not last. Eventually, I felt compelled to go in. I was scared, ill-equipped, tongue-tied, out of my depth. But for a moment or two, and on two or three other occasions through the day, I offered what I could - a stumbling word, a shared silence, a comforting touch – each time overwhelmed by the pain of it all and my uselessness to make it any different.
Sam died that night. Next morning, the door of his room was still open. But there was no patient or distressed family, only the empty bed and the stillness of the aftermath of death. I was relieved it was over for them – but also for me, for I needed no longer be burdened by the weight of my inadequacy.
Later that morning, the family came to collect Sam’s belongings and the death certificate – and asked to see me, to say thank you for my help during yesterday. My help? I murmured some words of protest. But Sam’s wife persisted: “No, you did good yesterday. All the family have said so, because you came into the room – and I know how hard that was.” The ultimate had not been possible – I could not stop the journey to death. My own inadequacies had been transparent – I would rather have been anywhere than be a part of the pain and sorrow. But with the compulsion to go in and the fearfulness of being there, in the transitions from spectator to participant, something good – of God – had taken place. “
I expect we would all like to feel that we could be heroic and wise in situations like these. But the truth is that what really matters is just that we should “go into the room”, be there, and look steadily at the pain, the mess and the anger alongside those who suffer.
I’m sure if Simon of Cyrene had had a chance he would have turned and run rather than carry that cross, but he didn't, and there is an intriguing hint that he might have ended up glad of that. Mark’s Gospel tells his story like this.
“They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry Jesus’ cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.”
Why does Mark tell us the names of Simon’s sons – they don’t come into the story at all, and they are never mentioned again? The only possible reason is that they were part of the Christian community Mark wrote his Gospel for, people Mark’s hearers would have known. That little clue tells us that Simon saw something in this man whose journey to the cross he was sharing and it changed him, and he in turn passed on his faith to his sons. Perhaps it was the realisation that just as he was carrying Jesus’ burden, there was a sense that Jesus was carrying his too.
Jesus died because the world in which he lived was a mess, just as ours is. He died because the people who had the power to kill him were too greedy and too afraid of losing their status and position to let him live, preaching his message of equality, love and dignity for those at the bottom of the heap. And if he came today we would almost certainly kill him all over again for the same reasons. Yet he had willingly got tangled up in that mess, a mess that we are all part of, all partly responsible for creating. Yet Jesus preached his message anyway, and even when he got to this this terrible, inevitable end of the journey, he didn’t turn back. He saw it through, not with vengeance in his mind but with love and forgiveness. He “came into the room” with us. He stayed in the room with us, and that is what made the difference, to Simon, and all who have found the courage to “come in the room” and be with those who suffer ever since.
*Tom Gordon – Hospice Chaplain – in “Lent and Easter Readings from Iona”.Neil Paynter (ed)