THE name of Simon of Cyrene and his bearing of the Cross for Christ is mentioned by three of the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke. There is something dramatic about this man who suddenly walked, in one moment, frorn unknown into undying remembrance. Nobody had ever heard of him before, and most likely nobody ever would have heard of Simon of Cyrene. But one day he happened along at just the right time, and today, more than nineteen centuries later, we all know his name. lt is inscribed in our churches under the Fifth Station, and every time we make the Way of the Cross we repeat his name.
How many great scholars are forgotten! How many generals and statesmen who wielded immense power, who marched in grand triumph are unremembered! How many ambitious men of all ages have tried mightily for an immortal name on the earth and scarcely became known to their own generations! Today, there are many who would like to go down in history, but despite their present reputation or notoriety, in fifty years they will at best be buried in the footnotes of dusty volumes, their names scarcely glanced at by research scholars. On Good Friday afternoon, a man who had no earthly power, who was not ambitious or scholarly, was unwillingly pushed into the living pages of history.
Christ Was Exhausted
Ordinarily it was less difficult for the condemned man to carry his cross to the place of execution. He carried the cross or the crosspiece, the patibulum, and only after arrival at the spot outside the city was he scourged. But Christ had already been scourged, whipped by the sharp lashes that bit into His flesh. Besides, He had been crowned with thorns. He bad been made sport of, spat upon, struck on His crowned head and on His face with a stick. The night before, He had undergone extreme mental agony. That alone was exhausting, for heavy sorrow tires the body. He had not had any sleep during the whole night, but had spent that time standing before the unjust judges. When He started out for Calvary, He was already completely exhausted. His strength was drained. Twenty-four hours before, the burden of the patibulum would have been bearable. Now it was an enormous task just to walk to the hill called Calvary. Our Lord was like a man who has bad an operation or whose system has experienced some profound pbysical shock. Even to walk a short distance leaves such a person worn and gasping for breath.
Because of His weakened condition, Our Lord fell to the ground. How many times He fell altogether is not known. The Stations of the Cross picture just three falls. Various traditions count between three and seven falls.
Did Simon Show Pity?
Perhaps we may reconstruct the scene. The soldiers wanted to get their job done—not that they had anything else important to do, but like any rough, healthy men, they soon lost patience with a stumbling, falling man. Simon of Cyrene just then came along, returning from the country. Perhaps he indicated some pity for the crushed, beaten carrier of the Cross. Perhaps he made some remark that was overheard by the soldiers. Perhaps there was some reason why they singled him out and forced him to help. There were dozens of others who could have served just as well.
Earlier, the crown of thorns had been thought up by the soldiers as a jest. Now they added another bit of improvised merriment. lt would be a joke to make this sympathetic Simon play the role of a condemned criminal. Besides, they would get to their destination sooner and get the job done. Why should they wait for this weary King of the Jews to get back His breath and His strength? On to the top of the hill and a refreshing drink of wine!
Artists have pictured Simon as carrying part of the Cross, as though he carried one end and Christ carried the other. The words of the Gospel are not entirely clear: "And going out, they found a man of Cyrene, named Simon: him they forced to take up His cross." (Matt. 27:32). "They laid the cross On him to carry after Jesus." (Luke 23:26). The word used for cross is patibulum, which really means the crosspiece. Whatever it was the Cross as pictured in traditional art, or the crossbeam—Simon himself bore at least part of the burden.
Cyrene was a Greek city in what is now Libya in northern Africa. Either Simon had personally lived there, or his ancestors had. In any case, people knew him as Simon the Cyrenean, although he may have been a Jew. Most likely, he now lived in Jerusalem, since at the time he was returning from the fields. He had probably been working there.
St. Mark mentions the names of the two Sons of Simon: Rufus and Alexander. (Mark 15:21). In the course of time, these two became Christians, along with their mother and Simon himself. They are spoken of several times later in the New Testament. It is interesting to note that the mother was so beloved by St. Paul that he refers to her as his own mother: "Salute Rufus, elect in the Lord, and his mother and mine." (Rom. 16:13).
Simon Was Unwilling
Simon of Cyrene may have been a kindhearted man. He may have had pity for the man he was being forced to help. Still, Simon was forced. He did not take up the Cross willingly. Not even St. John had thought of doing that or bad offered to do so. To carry the cross was an unspeakable disgrace. The cross was for the lowest criminals, slaves and murderers. The one who carried it was the one who died on it in disgrace. Simon had to carry the hated object and still live on. Perhaps in his mind there burned the thought of his present shame, and perhaps he looked ahead to future years when people might point and say: "He's the one who carried a cross," either in open mockery or in whispered secrecy.
Whether Simon marched the whole way in bitter inner protest or received the grace of joy and understanding as he went along is a matter of surmise. He and his family were fully rewarded in due time by the gift of the Christian faith.
No Mere Accident
This extraordinary event of Simon and the Cross must have an important meaning for all of us. Nothing connected with the Passion and Death of Christ was purely accidental. Many of the seemingly minor details were fulfillments of ancient prophecies. What is the meaning of Simon's helping to carry the Cross of Christ?
The answer may be seen in what Our Lord said while instructing the Apostles before sending them forth to preach, to cure, and to cast out devils. "He that loveth father or mother more than Me, is not worthy of Me, and he that loveth son or daughter more than Me, is not worthy of Me. And he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth Me, is not worthy of Me. He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for Me, shall find it." (Matt. 10:37-39). Again, the answer may be seen in what St. Paul said: "[I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His body, which is the Church." (Col. 1:24).
Simon of Cyrene walking after Christ is the living symbol of the way all must walk who want to follow Our Lord. "He that taketh not up his cross, and followeth Me, is not worthy of Me." (Matt. 10:38). Simon helping Christ is again the living symbol of all who help accomplish the Redemption by willing suffering.
We All Must Help to Carry the Cross
In short, Simon's helping Our Lord shows that in God's unfathomable plans for saving souls, we must all bear our crosses. Our own salvation and that of others depend on our participation in the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. We have to help Jesus bear His Cross.
Certainly, on the first Good Friday, Christ, being God, could have, in His Divine power, walked easily, carrying His Cross and not falling. But, He did not. He allowed His humanity to bear the burden and Simon to help. Certainly too, His sacrifice on Calvary in itself is infinite and requires no help from any of us. But God does not apply this saving sacrifice unless there are others who "help" Him by also carrying at least part of the Cross. In God's plan, we have to help.
This is a profound truth. Anybody who comes to understand it well has solved the riddle of all the disappointments, setbacks, sorrows and sufferings of life.
All of us are like Simon because we have to help. Most of us are like him in another way, too because we receive the cross unwillingly. lt may be forced upon us, even as on Simon, by those who are crucifying Christ. We may be the victims of the sins of others, of defamation of character by speech, of less-than-human hatred, of obstinacy and cruelty. We may be crushed by the misunderstanding of those who should love us. Or our cross may be pain of body. lt may be the even worse pain of "nerves" and emotional suffering. Whatever the cross is, it usually finds us at first unwilling. But whatever it is, it can lead us to final fulfillment and salvation, as it did for Simon of Cyrene and his family.
Lydia Longley has a right to the title, "the First American nun." She was the first girl born in the limits of the present United States to enter a convent. But if it had not been for a very tragic event, she might have died in Groton, Massachusetts, as a Puritan, without even knowing the graces of the Catholic Faith. In 1684 an Indian raiding party killed her father, her stepmother, and five other members of her family. She was taken into captivity into what is now Montreal. There she was ransomed by a French family. She found friendship, and much more, the Catholic Faith. Later she entered the convent of the Congregation of Notre Dame.
Lydia Longley had been carried away by Indians at the age of twenty. At twenty-two she embraced the Faith. At twenty-five she took her final vows as a nun. She lived the religious life for many years, and finally went to her reward in 1758. She is buried in Montreal. The heavy cross that she had to carry brought the gift of faith and of a religious vocation.
St. Pius X came from a family that bore the cross of real poverty. When he was going to high school in Castelfranco, he was up before dawn to serve the early Mass. Then he walked three miles to school. Usually he stopped right outside of town and took off his shoes and slung them about his neck by the shoestrings. This he did to keep them from wearing out. At the noon hour he tutored some children, in return for which the mother of the family gave him his lunch. In the late afternoon, he walked the three miles back home to Riese. This was what the future Pope and Saint had to do in order to continue his education toward his goal of the priesthood. But the cross of poverty helped him to develop a kind and sympathetic heart for others. lt helped him to develop self-forgetfulness and the spirit of sacrifice, which led him to Sainthood.
In his case, in that of Lydia Longley, and in countless others, we can see how God laid a cross on the Saints. We can also see how it led to growth in holiness and to salvation.
Sickness unto the Glory of God
Our Lord spoke very plainly about the sickness of Lazarus. His words are striking: "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God: that the Son of God may be glorified by it." (John 11:4). Lazarus endured the pains of his illness. He actually went through the final pain of death. His sisters Martha and Mary, so dear to Our Lord, suffered the heavy sorrow of the loss of their brother. When Our Lord finally came, both Martha and Mary told Him confidently that if only He had been there, their brother would not have died. Yet Our Lord's absence had been deliberate. Though He later wept at the tomb of Lazarus, He actually rejoiced when He told the Apostles that Lazarus had died. He said: I am glad, for your sakes, that I was not there, that you may believe." (John 11:15). Lazarus suffered and died; his sisters sorrowed; yet Christ, Who loved the three of them so much, rejoiced because of the good that His raising of Lazarus would do for the faith of the Apostles.
The iliness of Lazarus took place so that the Son of Man might be glorified. All the trials and sicknesses of life can serve the same purpose. Often we cannot see in our own lives how this works out. In some cases the results will be known only in Heaven. But whenever we have a cross to bear we should remember Simon of Cyrene. He too was unwilling, but he obtained the grace of conversion. If we carry our crosses as Simon did, recognizing them as the cross of Christ, walking after Him, then every cross will help us on to our salvation. lt will also help us help others to reach Heaven.
The Cross of Christ meant the salvation of all men. Simon helped carry that Cross. We are like Simon when we take up our cross as the Cross of Christ. lt seemed that Simon came accidentally on the scene. Our crosses seem so accidental and unnecessary. Yet that accidental cross is no accident at all, but a wonderful favor from God. It can mean that our names are written in the Book of Life.
There is no mention of St, Simon of Cyrene in the Church calendar but the nuns always referred to him as a Saint when I was growing up in the forties and fifties. We do know that he and his family converted to the Faith. I still call him by this title to this day. His two sons are Saints.
The image is THE CARRYING OF THE CROSS by Bagio da Antonio, c. 1500.