As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. Matthew 27:32
This doorway opens to a simple Franciscan Chapel built in 1895, and forms the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa. The Latin inscription reminds us that a cross was lain upon Simon the Cyrene, an African man. Although legend imputes upon Simon a generosity born of compassion in this act, the text of Scriptures gives no such elaboration. Rather, the soldiers of the Roman guard force him into service, as Jesus was exhausted from his scourging and trial.
In this man Simon the entire meaning of Easter’s cross comes clear. Simon happened upon the scene of Jesus’ death. Probably an African Jew in town to celebrate the Passover with a synagogue of countrymen, Simon unwittingly stumbles into the greatest drama of history. This is a biblical character I can connect with…one caught up into something so much larger than himself that he could not possibly understand it all. And yet in his ignorance, Simon the Cyrene performs the very act we as Christ followers are invited to perform voluntarily…take up our cross and follow Him.
So what does it mean to take up your cross and follow Christ? To one who has heard these words his entire life, they have a religious familiarity. But what can they possibly, practically mean? An implement of torture, an element of execution, juxtaposed in my daily, dull routine? What could Jesus possibly mean?
The Jerusalem pilgrims know that Jesus' cross was both method and means for one to follow God's plan. A Jewish intellectual, contemporary to Jesus, said of the cross " the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." There is a power in giving up a life of striving and struggling to earn God's favor, and embracing surrender to God's will. Jesus came to a religious people who could never keep the letter of their own law, and became the perfect embodiment of their hopes and dreams--the spotless Paschal lamb. That Jewish intellectual saw in the foolish story of a prophet killed in shame on an implement of torture the way out of his own shame--a fierce life of lawkeeping that drove him to religious extremism, and murder.
Grizzled soldiers placed upon Simon the Cyrene the cross of Christ. This Easter, I am asked to walk in his steps, to deny myself, and take up the cross daily. With Paul, the lawkeeping intellectual set free, I can find in the cross a release from my religious maze of rules. I can entrust myself to the one who kept every rule, and lived the spotless life of a sacrificial lamb. The one whose Father accepted His sacrificial death as substitute for a world tainted with self--he took the punishment that was meant for me. In the ancient words spoken by the prophet.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Post- biblical tradition tells us that Simon discovered this truth for himself, and passed it on to his sons. I pause this Wednesday before Easter and pray that I might pass the mystery of the cross to my children as well.