For Holy Week 2019, the Chapel presented a series of first-person narratives, called “Were You There,” from the perspective of different characters. This one, Simon, was written by Sawyer Patrick and presented by Tommy Langejans for Wednesday Morning Prayer, April 17, 2019.
My name is Simon of Cyrene, and I want to tell you a story. It’s a story you know very well, about Jesus, and the day he died. But my story isn’t about that. I want to tell you how I came to meet him, just outside the walls of Jerusalem.
I was taking my two sons, Alexander and Rufus, to Jerusalem for Passover. We were running several days late – the trip had been hard, and I was hearing the city was dangerous, swarmed by Roman soldiers, boiling over with fight. I was starting to think I’d made a mistake.
But as we got closer and closer, I began to hear from people leaving Judea about a man they claimed was the Messiah, our Savior. They told incredible stories about what he was capable of, the miracles he had performed in God’s name. It was so – exciting isn’t the right word… Hopeful. I felt real hope for the first time in a long time, and I was suddenly glad to have made the trip when I did, despite everything. Distantly, I even hoped that maybe I would be able to meet him, our Messiah.
Finally, we were almost there, and I could barely contain my enthusiasm. We crossed a field, Jerusalem on the horizon. It always is an incredible sight, such a great city. But as we drew closer, I noticed a large crowd gathering just inside the city gates. Everyone was screaming, many people were laughing or throwing things. A group of Romans were at the center, between them a – a giant wooden cross, the kind they hang Jewish dissidents on.
It was immediately obvious what was going on. I knew that I wanted no part of that; nothing good could come of it – and yet…part of me wanted to go see who it was. I was afraid it would be someone I knew.
As the crowd migrated out of the city walls and down the road, I told my sons to wait in the field and I stepped forward by myself to see what was happening. I stood at the back of the crowd and craned my neck to see who had been condemned to die, but I couldn’t see him clearly. The crowd continued to move along as he did and I found myself surrounded by it. Still, I searched for the man. I just wanted a glimpse of the unlucky soul; I prayed it wasn’t anyone I knew.
Above me, the cross dipped and suddenly dropped. He must have fallen, I realized. The crowd screamed louder, jeering and laughing. The soldiers crowed in tormented pleasure. I leaned forward again, trying to get just a glance – just a quick look –
A Roman was suddenly in my face, his expression contorted in ugly humor. He was yelling at me but I could barely make it out through the noise of the crowd. He wanted me to get in the middle with the man. He wanted me to carry the cross.
I tried to protest. I was a stranger. I have sons! I didn’t even know who this man was, and I truly didn’t want to. But it was too late for that. I struggled when he seized my tunic, but he hauled me out and into the middle of the crowd. I could finally see the condemned man.
There were branches wrapped around his head, the back of his tunic was soaked through with blood; he’d clearly been whipped. The sight made me sick to my stomach. He was on his hands and knees in the dust, the cross sitting heavy against his back. He looked like he was about to collapse.
I turned to beg the soldier to let me leave. I pleaded with him. I have children – I don’t know this man – I’m a stranger here, I’ve done nothing to deserve this. Please, I begged him, don’t punish me, too. The soldier would not listen. He threw me at the man on the ground and ordered me to pick up the cross. I had no choice. I did.
It was stained with blood where it had rested against the man’s back. I lifted it up and braced it against my shoulder, but still he did not move. His arms were shaking and his chest was heaving. One of the soldiers had a whip in his hand, and they brought it down hard on his back. He barely even cried out, he was so exhausted and overwhelmed. I realized he wasn’t going to get up on his own.
I reached out and held out my hand. The man must have seen it out of the corner of his eye; he looked up at me, dried blood carving tiny rivers down his face. His eyes were wide; I realized he was scared, at least as scared as I was. He reached up and took my hand and I pulled him to his feet. He leaned heavily on me, too weak to support himself. He was shorter than I am, and slight. I remember thinking he could have been my friend, or my cousin. I asked him what his name was. He told me it was Jesus.
I told him that I would walk with him. I told him I would walk all the way to Golgotha. I don’t really know what changed my mind. I still desperately wanted to leave and get back to Alexander and Rufus, to avoid getting into trouble myself, but – this man had nothing. He was alone, except for this mob of blood-thirsty voyeurs. I wanted to help him.
It was the right decision. Jesus looked…he looked so grateful, like he didn’t want to be alone. I could see him gather himself, mentally and physically. He looked down the road and started walking, by himself. His steps were short; he was almost shuffling, his body bent in on itself as he used all his strength to just take the next step. I have never seen anything like it. Even like that, he carried a presence that even the Romans had to respect, and their jeering trailed off, if only for a moment. Despite their best efforts, he retained his dignity, his strength. If he could do that, I decided, so could I. I set out behind him, dragging his cross behind me, and I followed him all the way up the mountain.
After we reached our destination and the Romans relieved me of the cross, I stayed only long enough to see the deed done, then left. I returned to the field where I left Alexander and Rufus. It had been hours, at this point, and they were worried. They ran up to hug me as I walked to them, and I had never been so happy to see them in all my life. They asked me what happened, and after a time I told them, like I tell you now.
The rest of the story you know very well, and I will not tell that part here. What came next was beyond words, but I refuse to dwell on it. His death does not haunt us. By telling his story, we keep his spirit alive and with us.