Margins of Miraculous – Simon of Cyrene by Shawn Blythe

There may be no more poignant reminder of the ways by which we cross paths with our Savior than the story of Simon of Cyrene.  His intersection with Christ was unlikely and under the most unimaginable circumstances. Cyrene was approximately 800 miles from Jerusalem – a journey that would take approximately one month to complete by land.  It was a pilgrimage that was likely only undertaken a handful of times over the course of a lifetime.  But in order to understand Simon, we need to understand why he may have come to Jerusalem that weekend.

Cyrene is located along the coast of Northern Africa in the eastern part of what is currently Libya.  Over time, the city changed hands between the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans.  It was during an Egyptian rule that Jewish roots take firm hold when Ptolemy Soter established a Jewish garrison there in roughly 300 B.C.  Strabo the historian records a significant Jewish presence in Cyrene with the following quote recorded by Josephus: “There were four classes of men among those of Cyrene; that of citizens, that of husbandmen, the third of strangers, and the fourth of Jews.”  By the time of the early church there may have been as many as 100,000 Jews living in and around Cyrene.

These Jews were not living independently from their Jewish homeland and were in regular contact with their counterparts back in Israel.  They were present at Pentecost (Acts 2).  Jews from Cyrene were regular attenders of the Synagogue of Freedmen (Acts 6) and they are recorded as having helped spread the word in the church of Antioch (Acts 11).  The Jews of Cyrene regularly sent their offerings back to the temple treasury.  Josephus records interventions from both Caesar Augustus and Marcus Agrippa in protecting the transfer of money from Jews in Cyrene back to Jerusalem.

Whether Simon of Cyrene was part of the Jewish Diaspora or a native convert from Northern Africa, he was probably not a simple tourist taking a holiday in Jerusalem that weekend.  He was much more likely a devoted Jew making his pilgrimage for the Passover festival.  He is mentioned by three of the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke) with Mark including the additional detail regarding Simon being the father of Alexander and Rufus.  There are many theories as to why Mark may have included this detail while the others omitted it.  One potential rationale is that Mark’s readers would have known who Alexander and Rufus were and therefore the reference to his children would have provided an explicit link to the Simon that Mark was referencing.  Although there are many depictions of Simon with his children when he was compelled to carry the cross, there is no record as to whether Alexander and Rufus were present – or even born yet.  But whether young or not yet conceived, given that Mark was written approximately 30 years after the crucifixion, Alexander and Rufus would have been old enough to have made a name for themselves within the community by the time that Mark was written if that was their desire.

There are theories and traditions that identify both Simon and his child Rufus as leaders in the early church.  However, there is no definitive record of Simon once he deposited the cross on the hill of Golgotha.  There is nothing to prove that the Rufus referenced by Paul (Romans 16) was in fact the son of Simon of Cyrene.  There is no evidence to support that the “Alexander Son of Simon” written in Greek on an ossuary found in the Kidron valley in 1941 belonged to the son of Simon of Cyrene.  But, of course, there is nothing to say that they aren’t related either!

It is possible that Simon of Cyrene completed his required task, wiped the blood from his clothes as best as he could, and hurried away in an attempt to put the distasteful experience out of his mind as quickly as possible.  It is also possible that the Via Dolorosa changed him forever.  It is an interesting to consider that Simon carried a burden that was unwanted, uncomfortable and clearly deviated from his plans for the day.  It is not dissimilar from the countless days when things don’t go as we have planned.  We are forced to do things we don’t wish to do, and go to places we don’t wish to go.  We are stained from the experience and no matter how hard we try; we find it difficult to wash the unfairness of it all out of our minds.

But of course, while we and Simon are carrying our temporary burdens, Christ was carrying the sin of the world – past, present and future.  It is one thing to forgive somebody for what they have done to you in the past.  It is something quite different to forgive somebody for what they are doing to you in the present.  But it is surely a sign of a love that we cannot understand to forgive us for the stripes we will apply in the future.  Simon may have been wondering about these thing as he walked next to Christ.  Or he may have been wondering if he was going to be reimbursed for his ruined clothing.  I can only speak for myself in confirming that both perspectives are well known to me.

Regardless of his motivations, Simon’s actions on that Friday have triggered a variety of ministries over the years.  The Cyrenians, based in the UK, focus on helping the homeless with a core concept of “sharing the burden”.  The Cyrene Movement focuses on healing racial trauma and references a commonly held view (and certainly possible) that Simon was a man of color.  Like Simon, they encourage us to help lift each other’s burdens. 

There is no record that any of the apostles accompanied Jesus in any physical sense on his tortuous walk to Calvary.  It seems that only a stranger from Cyrene would accompany him – and then only under duress.  But while Jesus may have been a stranger to Simon, we know for certain that Simon would not have been a stranger to Jesus.  If Simon did not at least look at the man who was walking to his death alongside him and wonder, it was surely a missed opportunity.  We should pay careful attention when we are grudgingly carrying our daily burdens that we do not forget that our Savior is walking right next to us – having already carried a far greater burden for us than we will ever know.