“And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.” (Mark 15:2).
“And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross to carry it behind Jesus.” (Luke 23:26).
“As they went out, they came upon a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; this man they compelled to carry his cross.” (Matthew 27:32)
My friend, Leo Demers had a brilliant career in television broadcasting. Having reached many industry milestones, he has published extensively in his area of expertise: broadcast engineering. Leo is retired now, but still sought out globally for consulting and writing projects in digital television, a field in which he’s a recognized pioneer.
Leo and I have been friends for 33 years. He and his wife, Penny, have stood by me through everything: seminary, priesthood, trial, prison. Leo leaves an occasional comment on These Stone Walls, his latest after “Forty Days and Forty Nights.” Leo also helps out with TSW in a pinch when needed.
Ten years ago, Leo and Penny took a long-planned trip to Rome and the Holy Land. I had been in prison for five years then, and was grateful when they invited me to write a prayer which they promised to leave in a crevasse at the famous Western Wall of the Jerusalem Temple known in Hebrew as ha-Kotel ha-Maaravi, the Wailing Wall. In Biblical history, the Wall was all that remained of the Jerusalem Temple after its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D.
The Wailing Wall is now a place of pilgrimage and the holiest site in Judaism. According to the Midrash, a collection of rabbinic scholarship dating from ancient times, the Wall survived the destruction of the Temple because the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, rests there.
I was very deeply moved to know that my prayer was placed there by my dear friends. Pope John Paul II visited there just after Leo and Penny, and left his own prayer at ha-Kotel ha-Maaravi. Global news outlets covered the historic moment when the Holy Father inserted his prayer in a crevasse in the Wall. I remember hoping that his wasn’t blocking mine!
Just outside the walls of Jerusalem, Leo came across a tourist area where a man with a camera was offering, for a fee, to photograph pilgrims carrying a cross. It was a slow day for the tourist trade, so the photographer tried to coax Leo to pick up a cross and buy a photo. Leo stopped cold, stunned at what he was being asked to do.
He pondered the scene for a moment, struck by the difference between what really happened at Calvary that day two millennia ago and the scene unfolding before him. He would have no part of it. Leo refused to pick up the cross feeling that the scene was making light of the central salvific event of human history.
Reflecting on the scene later, Leo thought of Simon of Cyrene compelled by Roman soldiers – some less aggressive than that photographer – to pick up the Cross of Christ. Leo became intrigued by the scant Gospel passages about Simon’s role. Upon returning from the Holy Land, Leo wrote me a letter. “What can you tell me about Simon of Cyrene?” So, you can blame Leo Demers for yet another excursion into history. Go ahead! Let him have it!!
THE PASSION OF SIMON OF CYRENE
Saint Mark is the first of the Evangelists whose Gospel came into written form. Simon of Cyrene is identified there as “the father of Rufus and Alexander” as though the writer expects readers to know them. Saint Mark directed his Gospel to the early Jewish-Christian community, so Rufus and Alexander were likely known to Saint Mark and to those who first read, or heard, his Gospel. There would be no other reason to include their names.
At the end of the Letter to the Romans (Romans 16:13) Saint Paul wrote: “Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, and also his mother who is a mother to me as well.” Since some Scripture scholars associate the Gospel of Mark with Rome, there’s a link with Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans where Rufus is known as a devout Christian and leader.
If this Rufus is the son of Simon of Cyrene, and they were a Jewish family, then it’s likely that the act of being compelled to carry the Cross of Christ had a profound impact. The impact was not only upon Simon, but upon his wife and sons who then became known to Saint Paul.
That Simon was a Jew is clear in all three Gospel passages. He would have no other reason to have been “coming in from the country” to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. Simon is clearly a historical figure, but the inclusion of his city or origin in the Gospels is both historical and symbolic. Cyrene, an ancient Greek city in Northern Africa, represents the limits of the known world for both Judaism and the Roman Empire. Cyrene had a large Jewish Diaspora, a term that refers to the dispersement – or exile – of Jews beyond Jerusalem beginning six to eight centuries before Christ.
Saint Luke emphasized the coercion of Simon, citing that he was seized, the Cross of Christ laid upon him, and forced to carry it behind Jesus. It’s unclear here what the motivation of the Roman soldiers was. They may have feared that Jesus, thoroughly beaten by the Romans, may not survive carrying the Cross long enough to be crucified.
They could also have forced Simon, a Jew, to carry the Cross behind Jesus as a further Roman mockery of Him as “King of the Jews.” Saint Matthew’s account emphasizes simply that Simon was compelled to carry the Cross.
Simon of Cyrene is conspicuously absent from the Gospel of John, the latest of the Gospels and the one most imbued with highly developed theological reflection. Simon’s absence there also tells us something. Saint John’s Gospel presents a well defined Christology seeing Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant - what we call the Old Testament.
Saint John’s Gospel proclaims a theological truth in his depiction of the Cross. Christ carries the wood for His own sacrifice mirroring the near sacrifice of Abraham’s son, Isaac:
“And Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father… ‘but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, God Himself will provide the lamb for sacrifice.’ ” (Genesis 22:6-8).
In the theology of Saint John’s Gospel, Isaac was the heir to the Old Covenant. When Abraham, in obedience, was about to sacrifice him, God stayed his hand. In Christ, God will do for us what He spared Abraham from doing for Him. He will sacrifice His Son, and no one will stay God’s hand.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
In my post, “A Corner of the Veil” in December, I wrote of how much I was in awe of Mel Gibson’s masterpiece of a film, The Passion of the Christ. I wrote about the moving scenes of Mary suffering a crucifixion of her own – the wound of being unable to touch her son while she witnessed His path to Calvary and His Crucifixion. In “February Tales” I cited the Feast of the Purification of Mary, the origin of which was her ritual presentation in the Temple before Simeon when he blessed Mary and Joseph and their newly born Son:
“Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”
In The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson depicted the moment of Mary’s soul being pierced on the path to Calvary with such power and beauty that it was overwhelming.
The film’s depiction of Simon of Cyrene was equally masterful, and profoundly inspiring. I remember Penny Demers, a convert to Catholicism, telling me in the prison visiting room one day, “Mel Gibson has given us a wonderful gift.” It would be another year before I could view the film.
It was in The Passion of the Christ that both Leo Demers and I first realized that Simon of Cyrene is the person in the Gospel with whom we can most relate. I can’t speak for Leo, but I know I haven’t picked up my cross willingly – at least not at first. I was compelled to carry it, and I didn’t see it as a share of Christ’s burden at first. None of us ever do. We’re dragged into it kicking and screaming at first.
The Passion of the Christ portrayed with power and grace how Simon was compelled to carry the Cross, but then became a part of it, sharing Christ’s mission. Mel Gibson depicted something that stirred within Simon compelling him to remain there, to set his own journey aside entirely, and finally to fully share the weight of Christ’s burden seeing Him – and His Cross – in the light of Truth. The lights went on in Simon’s soul, and he became compelled not just from Roman force, but from deep within himself. A few weeks ago, I wondered if such a change might be what compelled Saint Patrick to return to Ireland after his escape from slavery. There are many other examples.
Monsignor Michael Palud also helped me with my own burden from his post in Jamaica in “The Passion of Father Gordon MacRae.”
Being compelled to carry the Cross of Christ was behind a recent blog post by Charlene Du1ine, “Pornchai Moontri is Worth Saving.”
DR. JAMES GUZEK: COMPELLED TO BRING SIGHT TO THE BLIND
I received a letter from Simon of Cyrene last month. No, not the original one but one of the many people I have come to equate with him. Dr. James P. Guzek, M.D., an ophthalmologist and surgeon in Washington State, is a devout Catholic and author. I have been privileged to proofread and comment on some of his upcoming book on the Early Church transition from the Jewish Sabbath to a Sunday celebration of The Lord’s Day.
What could be dry historical theology became fascinating in Dr. Guzek’s hands. I’ll write of it when it’s published. I am proud to say that Dr. Guzek is a subscriber and occasional commenter on These Stone Walls.
Dr. Jim Guzek has also fulfilled the example of Simon of Cyrene in profound ways, and I have come to admire him as a true model of faith and witness. He is a modest man, and will be the last to tell you that he has accomplished a Corporal Work of Mercy of Biblical proportion. Dr. Guzek has restored sight to the blind at home, and, more recently, in Ghana and Ethiopia.
In his recent letter, Dr. Guzek wrote of having read my post “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden” just after his return from Ethiopia where he performed surgery for ten hours a day. He restored sight to sixty-two blind children and adults, stopping only because he exhausted the supplies brought to Ethiopia for this mission.
There were many obstacles. First, Ethiopian customs officers would not allow the operating microscope into the country, then its fuses were blown twice, then a set screw broke on its ocular mount. Each obstacle was somehow overcome.
Miraculously, not a single post-operative infection occurred despite conditions in the makeshift operating room. Each surgical procedure was a great success. Here is an especially moving paragraph from Dr. Guzek’s letter:
“We could only operate on those who were gropingly blind … One 9-year-old girl was memorable. Her left eye was completely spoiled with scarring of the whole cornea from unknown reasons from a very early age. Her seeing eye had become completely clouded by cataract by age 8. She had to be led into the clinic. When I saw her, I asked her if she wanted to see normally again. Of course, she did. I asked her if she could lay perfectly still while I poked a needle below the eye which would hurt her a lot. At first, she said no. After some thought, she allowed me to do the surgery on her. I injected anesthetic below the eye to numb it, and she did not move at all during the surgery. The next morning she was seeing 20/40! However, she still looked anxious. We asked if she was happy, and she said, “Can I move my eyes now?” She was afraid she would again lose her vision if she moved her eyes!”
Dr. Guzek brought along his 13-year-old son, James, who helped to sterilize equipment between operations. “I plan to go back, with God’s help,” wrote Dr. Guzek, “and James wants to go back as well. ”
In my post, “A Ghost of Christmas Past” last Advent, I wrote that Christ brought about a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it. There is a little girl in Ethiopia who can see the light of hope in the faces of others today because a man and his son have learned a lesson from Simon of Cyrene, compelled from deep within to carry the Cross of Christ.
“Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on
the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and
rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples; for it is in fact an attempt to prevent Christ from being Christ.
Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection,
so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s
suffering and rejection and crucifixion.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945). The Cost of Discipleship, (Ch.4, “Discipleship and the Cross,” p. 87)