People of the Book: Simon of Cyrene
One of the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth, once advised Christians to keep the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other (see Time, May 31, 1963). While he most assuredly privileged the former over the latter (sadly there was no sola Star Herald rallying cry during the Reformation), he meant by this to always seek connections between the faith which forms and transforms our lives, and the events unfolding around us, both personally and on a global scale.
Perhaps no region on earth has more captured the world’s attention in recent days than Libya, and so let us take a moment to reflect upon one of its most famous citizens, at least in terms of Scripture.
The town of Shahat in northeastern Libya was once called Cyrene, and has given rise to the territorial province known as Cyrenaica, which includes the modern city of Benghazi, which at this writing remains at the very epicenter of the anti-Gaddafi revolution. In the first century AD, this region was an agricultural center with a substantial Jewish population. One of its inhabitants named Simon was either visiting, or more likely permanently residing in, Jerusalem and by doing so unwittingly inserted himself into the Christian imagination (and nearly every church wall, passion play, and Stations of the Cross booklet) for the next 2,000 years.
While St. John the Evangelist does not mention Simon, he appears in the other three Synoptic Gospels – Mark (the first to be written), and Matthew and Luke, both of which are believed to have used Mark’s account and a missing text now called “Q,” from the German for Quelle (source), as the framework for the independent construction of their inspired narratives.
According to Mark, “Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the fields and passing by, to bear Jesus’ cross” (Mk 15:21). It is likely that Alexander and Rufus were known to the Markan audience personally and had some standing in that specific Christian community, because they are left out of the Lucan and Matthean accounts to be written later in geographically and culturally diverse settings. In fact, Israeli archeologists Eleazar Sukenik and Nahman Avigad found an ossuary in 1941 that is inscribed “Alexander (son) of Simon,” in Cyrenian Greek which have led some to argue for the historical accuracy of the event and the high esteem with which early Christians venerated these figures.
Simon has long been portrayed as a model, if reluctant, disciple, although his actual previous and ongoing relationship with Jesus and his followers is at this point still quite debated. The modern iconic image of Simon is perhaps most memorably portrayed by Sidney Poitier in The Greatest Story Ever Told, a powerful presentation of the African heritage of the figure and what some have read as a commentary on the Civil Rights movement and its intrinsic call to solidarity and fraternity across demographic and socio-political boundaries.
More than any other biblical figure, Simon physically follows the Lord’s command to “take up your cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). This imperative can become too easily divested of meaning after countless repetitions. Jesus does not instruct us to choose which cross to take up; we are not given the option of inspecting the lumberyard in Home Depot to choose the cross that would best suit us. Rather, it is the cross which life presents to us, in the mundane or the tragic, the monotonous or the toilsome, that is our very individual burden to carry in the footsteps of our Teacher and Lord. It is this specific cross in this particular moment of this very day which we are called to take up.
Simon serves as a ready and obliging witness to an ever-intensifying association with the paschal mystery, one which every Christian ought to emulate and assimilate first through baptism and then through practice, “for if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also share in the likeness of His resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with Him…If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him” (Rom 6).
The New Testament mentions nine men named Simon, not to mention the closely related Simeon in the account of Lord’s Presentation in the Temple. Thus while it was a common moniker in the ancient world, the Cyrenian Simon’s role in Jesus’ final moments is anything but ordinary. He ought not only to inspire us to be willing to shoulder the burdens of our own lives with peace and commitment and to ease the hardships of our fellow brothers and sisters when possible, but also to marry our efforts at inner strength, holiness and perseverance with those of Our Lord, who Himself conquered sin and to whom the Church unites herself each year during these solemn 40 days to the mystery of Him in the desert, where he overcame the temptation to pride that marked our original undoing (Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 540).
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.