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Carrying the Cross

As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. Luke 23.26.

Jesus has already endured a beating by the temple police (Luke 22.63), rough handling by Herod’s soldiers (Luke 23.11), and finally a “scourging” by Pilate’s soldiers (Mark 15.15). Scourging was by a leather whip studded with sharpened pieces of lead and bone that tore a man’s back to shreds, so no wonder Jesus was unable to stand or walk while bearing his cross. But … no matter! One of the soldiers in charge glances at the surrounding crowd, singles out someone who looks strong enough for the task, taps him on the shoulder with his spear, and Simon of Cyrene is impressed into the service of Rome to do for Jesus what Jesus cannot do for himself.

Cyrene was an ancient city in North Africa, about 6 miles inland from the port of Apollonia, located on the site of what is now Shahhât in Libya, and in the time of Jesus there was a Jewish colony there. For Jews living in such remote places, a visit to Jerusalem at Passover was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for which to scrimp and save for years. Maybe Simon was one of a group of such Jews who had travelled together, for on the Day of Pentecost, seven weeks after the crucifixion, the crowd who listened to Peter’s sermon included people from “the parts of Libya near Cyrene” (Acts 2.10). But now this — the humiliation of having to carry a criminal’s cross for him! No doubt he could not wait to get to the execution site, be relieved of his burden, and get away and back to his friends as fast as his legs could carry him. But did he?

Mark’s gospel refers to Simon too, but Mark tells us a little more about him. He was “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15.21). How did Mark know that and why does he mention the fact? It is pretty certain that Mark’s gospel was first written for the Christians in Rome, so maybe Alexander and Rufus were known to them and to Mark. Maybe they were part of the church there? Turn to Paul’s letter to the church in Rome and what do we find? “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too” (Romans 16.13).

But there is more. Acts 13 records that “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene …” (Acts 13.1). “Simeon” and “Simon” are two forms of the same name, and “Niger” was the Greek name for men of dark-skin of African descent, so is it not too fanciful to find here (particularly in company with another man from Cyrene) the same Simon who once carried the cross of Jesus?

Who knows what happened to Simon on that road to Calvary as he took of the cross and followed Jesus? But it seems to me that it changed his life and the lives of his wife and children. The circumstantial evidence is strong that they all became followers of the one Simon saw crucified, and that Simon went on to became prominent as a prophet or teacher in the church.

And the call to me is, of course, that I too deny myself and take up the cross daily and follow Jesus (Luke 9.23) … that I do in my mind and heart and will what Simon alone, in all of history, did in harsh reality. And in doing that, I too will have my life changed and so will those around me.

Lord Jesus, give me grace to take up the cross and follow you faithfully this day. Amen.

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