Vicar's Sermon - Wednesday of Holy Week
‘They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross: it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.’
He was a long way from home. Tap ‘Cyrene’ into Google maps and you find yourself in modern day Libya, on the coast in the Eastern part of the country looking out over the Mediterranean Sea. There is an archaeological site there: a World Heritage Centre – ruins of ancient Greek origin from the time when Alexander had conquered the area, overlaid with Roman remains that date back to 100 years BC. The sun is hot, the sky is blue and, high above sea level the area is known for its fruit growing: maybe Simon was a farmer? We don’t know.
He was a long way from home. Did he have his family with him: Alexander (a Greek name but an honourable one), Rufus? Where was his wife...back home whilst the ‘men’ made the trip of a lifetime up to Jerusalem.? ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ say modern day Jews. It is still a dream of many Jews in the diaspora to celebrate just one Passover in the city. So perhaps they had made the journey together. You can, of course, fly now but back then it was a long road journey of over a thousand miles – it would take plenty of planning and a good deal of money – so Simon was perhaps, fairly well off.
On the day in question he had decided to come into the city to get a few things, to see the sites: this was where Solomon’s temple had stood and where Herod’s Temple was under construction. There were the Roman headquarters – they looked the same the world over and he had seen the garrison in his own city. It had been a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One moment h was site seeing, bartering with the tradesmen for his purchases, soaking up the atmosphere of the city on a spring morning and then he had turned a corner to be confronted by an angry mob screaming for blood.
The soldiers were struggling to control the crowd that filled the tight street with shouts and curses but, near the front of the procession was a man carrying the cross bar of his own cross. That image would stay with Simon for the rest of his life.
I have not seen Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion of Christ’. I’m not sure I could cope with the extreme focus that he places on the mechanics of Christ’s beating, scourging, humiliation and crucifixion but this episode, Simon being forced to carry the cross, tells us one thing: Jesus was well nigh dead even before he was lifted onto the cross at Golgotha. Tradition has it that Jesus fell three times on the Via Dolorosa: scripture tells us that he was no longer able to carry his cross and that Simon was pressed to do so. What had they done to Jesus that he should be so broken.
He was wearing his own clothes – beneath his robes his back and sides had been torn to shreds and the blood was running freely. He had been beaten by the whole cohort - pushed around, disorientated, bruised. He had had no sleep, he was alone and the world was slipping away from him.
Simon, (Why me? Why did the soldier pick me ? Did I look so startled or naive that I was an obvious choice?) shoulders the cross: it is the law, there can be no argument with a soldier and this man has death on his mind already. In years to come people would remember Jesus words ‘if anyone forces you to go one mile then go the second mile too’. Simon carries the cross for the last part of the journey: it’s not easy but the poor soul being dragged along by the soldiers will have to go the second mile alone.
That we know Simon’s name...that we know the names of his sons, suggests that he and his family became part of the Christian Community . He appears nowhere else in the gospel account, just here. Taking up a cross unwillingly but, it would appear, finding something in doing so that changes his life, that connects him to Jesus from this day onwards.
There are many things that weigh people down. Some of these things come our way unbidden – they are forced on us. An illness; a problem at work that won’t go away and has no easy solution; care for parents or partners; trips to hospital (again, and again, and gain) as cancer takes hold; anxiety over children; worries about money. Further afield the burdens take different forms: there are the homeless from Syria or Iraq. The abused, the maligned. The hungry, the diseased. There is nothing heroic abut Simon – he does not volunteer to carry the cross, he does not step forward to help Jesus – he is compelled, he has no choice....yet in doing so he comes close to God’s purposes of redeeming love. Love that can fashion hope from a man bleeding on the floor who needs help to embrace his death.