For many Christians who follow the church calendar, the changing of the liturgical seasons offers opportunities for deepening one’s spiritual life and our relationship with the Lord Jesus. This is especially true for the season of Lent.
Fasting, more frequent prayer and worship, acts of charity and the use of devotional booklets are just some of the ways to observe Lent.
One of my favorite Lenten devotions observed at many Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches is the Stations of the Cross. This service is offered every Friday in Lent at Trinity Episcopal at 5:30 p.m. and on Good Friday at noon.
In this service, there is a procession of the congregation (if small enough), brief prayers and short hymns offered at 14 artistic depictions (paintings or sculptures) of the Passion, beginning with Jesus being condemned to death and ending with his body being placed in the tomb. It is a moving opportunity to commemorate and contemplate the suffering and death of Jesus on our behalf.
The practice of this devotion began in the fourth century, when pilgrims to Jerusalem followed the Way of the Cross, the route that Jesus took in carrying his cross from Pilate’s judgment seat to Golgotha. Today, that route in Jerusalem is called in Latin the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows.
On a recent Friday in Lent, while contemplating the fifth Station, I was inspired by the Synoptic Gospels’ (Matthew, Mark, Luke) figure of Simon of Cyrene.
Very little is known about Simon with certainty. He was from a town called Cyrene on the northern African coast in what is today’s Libya. It was the capital of a Roman province and was known to have a large Jewish population. He may or may not have been a Jew, but if he was, he may have been in Jerusalem to observe the Passover, but this is speculative.
Jesus had been beaten, scourged and sleepless since the night before in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Luke tells us he was so anxious in envisioning his coming Passion that he sweat blood. Whether he was carrying a heavy cross beam or a full cross to the place of execution, he was severely debilitated from trauma.
Enter the figure of Simon of Cyrene, an innocent bystander. Or, you could say Simon was forced into the spotlight, for the Gospels say that the Roman soldiers compelled him to carry Jesus’ cross. Some translations say that the soldiers seized Simon, and Luke says they made Simon carry the cross behind Jesus, literally following him. Given the way Jesus was treated by the soldiers, we can be sure they intimidated and probably roughed up Simon as well.
This dramatic scene from the Passion is fraught with rich symbolism.
I tried to imagine myself in Simon’s position. Here he was, seemingly minding his own business, when suddenly and involuntarily he is chosen by the soldiers and becomes an important figure in the Passion. He surely must have exclaimed or at least thought, Why me?
How many times in life do we say literally or figuratively, Why me, Lord? when afflicted by suffering of any kind or when asked to do something to further the Lord’s purposes that we think we just cannot do.
Yet, in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus says, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Luke’s translation in 9:23 says take up their cross daily. And then in Luke 23:26’s parallel language, Simon takes up a cross, Jesus’ cross, and literally follows behind him. He helps Jesus by carrying the cross.
So we can try to bear our own personal suffering and that of loved ones, knowing that God never abandons us. So we can try to recognize grace when asked to do things to further God’s purposes that we think we just cannot do, such as serving as a Christian education teacher, comforting the sick and those grieving, evangelizing and so many other actions that make the Holy Spirit an active presence and a gift of peace in this world of turmoil.
Simon, however initially reluctant (just like us!), reminds us that bearing our own crosses, and especially helping others with theirs, like Simon did, is essential to Christian discipleship. Help us, Lord, to follow in your footsteps, like Simon.