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.(Mark 15.21)
Cyrene was a Greek town in what we now know as Libya. It also had a Jewish colony. So it may well have been that Simon, a north African Jew, had made the journey to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Jesus was exhausted, continual beatings, sleep deprivation, questioning, abuse – we are still familiar with the way in which prisoners can be treated even by regimes of which much better should be expected. Now he was meant to carry his cross from the Antonia Fortress to outside the city wall and the Place of the Skull. What he would have been carrying would have been the crossbar onto which he would be nailed and then hauled up the upright that was already in place and which would be used for every prisoner.
Pilgrims to Jerusalem, walking the Via Dolorosa, have the experience of carrying the cross between the fourteen stations that mark the way that Jesus walked. It is a tough thing to do – physically and emotionally – and it is normal for the cross to be shared, two bearing it at one time and swopping at various points in the journey with others eager to do this.
There was no one eager to do it for Jesus. Simon had to be compelled, perhaps with a lash to do this ignominious act. But later he must have realised what he had done and must have become a Christian, perhaps the first to be converted on the Way of the Cross.
Why do I say this? Well, Mark in his gospel mentions Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus. Mark was writing his gospel for the Christian community in Rome. To bother to mention these two names must have meant that it was significant for those first readers. They must have known them; they must have been part of their community. Simon carries the cross for Jesus and then carries the cross for the rest of his life as a Christian and brings his family with him.
“Take up thy cross,” the Saviour said,
“If thou wouldst My disciple be;
Deny thyself, the world forsake,
And humbly follow after Me.”
Take up thy cross, let not its weight
Fill thy weak spirit with alarm;
His strength shall bear thy spirit up,
And brace thy heart and nerve thine arm.
Take up thy cross, nor heed the shame,
Nor let thy foolish pride rebel;
Thy Lord for thee the cross endured,
And saved thy soul from death and hell.
Take up thy cross then in His strength,
And calmly sin’s wild deluge brave,
’Twill guide thee to a better home,
It points to glory o’er the grave.
Take up thy cross and follow Christ,
Nor think ‘til death to lay it down;
For only those who bear the cross
May hope to wear the glorious crown.
To Thee, great Lord, the One in Three,
All praise forevermore ascend:
O grant us in our home to see
The heavenly life that knows no end.