Simon of Cyrene had every reason to be shocked. He was on his way in from the country, likely headed to Jerusalem for the Passover, when he was seized from the crowd and forced to join a procession heading toward Golgotha, the place of the Skull. They put a crossbeam on him, one to be used in the execution of a criminal, and made him carry it. The offense of this object and unchosen assignment would have been blatant to Simon and everyone around him. He had been recruited to play a role in a crucifixion; there was no more dishonorable form of judicial execution in the Roman Empire. Among Jews, anyone condemned to hang on a tree was thought accursed. Staggering in front of Simon, beaten and bloodied, was the shamed man to whom this cross belonged.
In many ways, it was a day of shocking and paradoxical darkness, akin to the sort of half-understood encounter T.S. Eliot so aptly describes:
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstacy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.(1)
For Simon, thrust in the middle of angry men and wailing women, the day held a burden he did not deserve, a shame he did not seek to bear for himself. He was on his way inside the holy city to celebrate the Passover, the release of his ancestors from the bondage of slavery—the central act of God in Israel’s history—and he found himself forced to carry the cross of a condemned man outside the city walls. It was the furthest he could be taken from the sense of place he wanted to possess.
The crowd pressed in behind them as they walked forward. Simon would hear Jesus turn to the women who were mourning and wailing and offer a curious response: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed! They will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”‘ For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”(2) Simon would have recognized these lines as words of the prophet Hosea, the prophet through whom God would show his heart, to demonstrate a love that would not quit.
When they made it to Golgotha, Simon’s task was finished. The beam was taken from him and the man he followed to the place of the Skull was stripped of his garment and nailed to the cross. Nothing further is mentioned about Simon the Cyrene in any of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. But surely much is left to wonder. Did he stay after the burden had been lifted from his own shoulders? Did he hear Jesus cry out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” or watch him extend the invitation of paradise to the broken criminal on the cross beside him? What went through Simon’s mind as he walked behind the weak and beaten Jesus, the events of Passover brutally interrupted by the events of the cross? Did he look on as they mocked the “King of the Jews” who remained silent through the insults? Was he filled with thoughts of the Passover he was missing, the life he needed to resume, as they challenged Jesus to come down from the cross? Or perhaps Simon was more deeply disturbed by the end of the journey than he was of its beginning. What we call the beginning is often the end, says Eliot.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.(3)
Matthew reports the conclusion of the first Good Friday and the cross that would become a stumbling block for all of history: “When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split… When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’”(4)
It is impossible to tell what became of Simon after he carried the burden of the one sentenced to die. But it is a vision terribly full, if half-understood: The memorial Simon had celebrated his entire life—the redemption of Israel from the yoke of slavery, the blood of the unblemished lamb, the Passover hope for the liberating Messiah—had emerged before him, the slaughter of the paschal lamb.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.(5)
One thing is yet clear: Simon of Cyrene was on his way somewhere else and the cross was a shocking interruption. And so it remains.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets (Harcourt: New York, 1971), 28-29.
(2) Luke 23:28-31.
(3) Eliot, 58.
(4) Matthew 27:50-53.
(5) Eliot, 30.