5 min. to read.
Today is the 32nd day of Lent. I’m continuing with Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations.
Today’s passage is Mark 15:21, a single verse that offers us a fascinating glimpse into the life of the early church.
Jesus left the praetorium carrying the crossbeam himself, but he was already severely injured from the beating and torture and tired from a long night of emotional trauma. The cross was heavy, and he was weak. At one point, the soldiers, perhaps frustrated by Jesus’ slowing pace, pressed a passer-by into service.
Mark’s gospel captures this moment in a single verse. “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.” Why would the gospel writer know this stranger’s name? Why would he know the names of his children? Why would he include them here?
All three of the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) mention Simon of Cyrene, but only Mark mentions the sons. Mark’s gospel was written sometime between 64-76AD, the earliest of the Gospel accounts. Simon was a random stranger in the crowd. How would it be possible that Mark would have known his name, especially since it’s likely that Simon had died by the time the gospels were written?
I suspect the reason is simple. Mark knew Simon and his sons’ names because they were part of the early community of Christians. Simon was from Cyrene, a city in modern-day Libya in Africa. He was likely in Jerusalem for Passover, one of the pilgrims who made their way there each year. At some point after that fateful day, Simon and his family became followers of Jesus and were known in the community.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he greets a Rufus who was a leader in the church in Rome. Perhaps this is the same person. Polycarp, the disciple of John who taught and wrote a generation later, also mentions a Rufus who was known to work among the apostles. If Alexander and Rufus were active in the early church, that is likely how the gospel writers knew Simon of Cyrene’s name. It also means that Mark is pointing his readers to first-hand witnesses of the crucifixion that would still have been alive and accessible to them.
But I suspect their inclusion is more than a citation of eye-witnesses. Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus cross. If he became a follower of Jesus, imagine the significance. Zahnd puts it this way: “I like to think about Simon the Cyrene worshipping in one of the first-century house churches and his fellow believers whispering to one another, ‘the cross-bearer is here.’ Can you imagine meeting the man who carried Jesus’ cross?!” (133). This would have been considered a special honor. Even more, he would have been considered a model for the Christian life. Why?
Remember Jesus’ words we talked about yesterday? “Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.'” (Luke 20:22-24) Simon of Cyrene was one among them who had literally taken up the cross and done so in a situation where he had little choice. He was a living parable.
“Remember what happened to Simon,” they might have said. “There are times when you will have no choice. Life will press you into service. You will be the one present and able to bear up under the burden of others. It may come at cost to you. It may be terrifying. But you will walk a ways carrying the cross of another. When you do that, you are not only serving them, but you are also joining Jesus in his passion.” Paul taught this principle when he said that we are to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
The early Christians did not see their faith as a way to a better life. Christianity wasn’t about personal growth. Their faith in Jesus was accepting the invitation to carry Jesus’ cross. “As I have loved you, so you should love each other,” Jesus said. Jesus’ love is most clearly defined by the cross, the epitome of other-centered, co-suffering love.
Lent invites us to bear one another’s burdens. This way is life.