by Br Julian McDonald cfc
A man named Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was coming in from the fields, and they pressed him into service to carry the cross…The centurion who stood guard over him, on seeing the manner of his death, declared: “Clearly, this man was the Son of God!” Mark 14, 1 – 15, 47
Compared with the Good Friday reading of John’s account of the Passion of Jesus, Mark’s version is very much understated. The first ten chapters of Mark’s Gospel present Jesus engaging with the crowds and receiving their approval not only for his cures and miracles but also for the manner in which he identified with them as they struggled with the burdens put upon by religious leaders intent on demanding observance of the letter of the Law. Those ten chapters also reveal how Jesus had disagreed with the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee over the narrow ways in which they had interpreted their Jewish Scriptures and traditions. Jesus could not accept the way in which they put rigid and unfeeling adherence to law ahead of human need and well-being. Consequently, as early as chapter three of his Gospel, Mark notes that religious authorities were shaping plans for ending Jesus’ life.
Mark does describe Jesus’ short journey from Bethany to Jerusalem as one during which he received accolades from the crowd, who spread cloaks and reeds in his path. This journey, I suggest, was much more like a protest march than a procession of triumph. When he reached the city gates, he entered Jerusalem alone, not in triumph and quietly went into the Temple and looked around before returning with his disciples to Bethany. It was the next say, according to Mark, that he returned to the Temple and caused a commotion by overturning tables and driving out those who had turned the Temple into a market-place. He looked, pondered, and then acted.
The events that followed the anointing of his feet by an unnamed woman in the house of Simon were not witnessed by adoring crowds. They were largely confined to Jesus and his disciples. It was only Jesus who understood that his journey to Jerusalem was actually a funeral procession. He fully understood that he was a marked man. While his disciples may have shown signs of anxiety, they could not grasp what was about to unfold. They came to understand what eventuated only in retrospect, only after he had been executed and resurrected. We, too, participate in all the events of Jesus psychological struggles in Gethsemane garden, his betrayal and trial, his condemnation, torture and execution, in the knowledge of his resurrection. We know that, despite our betrayals, our desertions and treacheries, his acceptance and forgiveness and love for us has not wavered.
Of note, too, is the fact that, while Jesus celebrated a Passover meal privately with his friends, Mark records no mention of directions to them to repeat the ritual offering of bread and wine among themselves or with anyone else. It was only in retrospect that Mark’s Christian community interpreted this as the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as what we now call Eucharist.
Having noted Mark’s way of understating the events surrounding Jesus’ final days, I invite us all to turn our attention to two seemingly insignificant aspects of Mark’s narrative. – the conscription of Simon of Cyrene to assist Jesus in carrying his cross and the proclamation of the Roman centurion when he saw that Jesus had expired.
We’ve all come to admire people who voluntarily take up a cross by dedicating their professional expertise to the service of those who are less fortunate. They let go of personal advancement simply to benefit others, because that’s what walking in the footsteps of Jesus means to them. One such person is Dr Tom Catena, a 57-year-old physician, surgeon and lay-missionary from New York, who has spent the last 13 years as the only doctor at a 435-bed hospital in the Nuba mountains of South Sudan. There’s a kind of brightness about chosen crosses such as this. Moreover, we often find inspiration in the words and actions of those who choose them. When the local bishop directed all foreign Church workers to leave when their lives were at risk, Tom Catena refused, saying: “The way I saw it was that, if I left, that would tell the people here that my life is more valuable than theirs. And I don’t believe that. That’s not how Christ was, he gave his life for everyone.” (America magazine, August 2018)
But there are other crosses that none of us chooses. They are the kind of cross inflicted by oppressors on ethnic groups like the Rohinga Muslims of Myanmar and the Uyghur people in Xinjiang Province, China. Then there is the baffling cross of the Covid 19 pandemic which has been carried by millions of people across the globe. All these crosses seem to me to make no sense whatsoever. That’s the kind of cross that was forced on Simon of Cyrene, who arrived on the scene of Jesus’ struggle to Calvary at the wrong time. Pressed into helping Jesus who had fallen under the weight of his Cross, Simon had no choice but to give in to the Roman soldiers who were in charge. We don’t even know if he was a religious man going up to Jerusalem for Passover. Mark identifies him as “the father of Rufus and Alexander”, suggesting, perhaps, that this family was known to Mark’s community. Was Simon a reluctant participant or a willing helper? Had he undergone some kind of conversion by the time he got to the end of that ordeal? Did he flee the scene as soon as the soldiers had finished with him? There are times in our lives when we are drawn into the lives of acquaintances, friends, family members and even strangers, and asked or forced to assist them in carrying their crosses of terminal illness, creeping dementia, criminal charges, grief, loss and the like. Reflecting on Simon of Cyrene prods me to ask if I am a reluctant or grumbling participant in the crosses of those around me or whether I walk with them caringly and compassionately. Do I walk with them giving of my time and attention stintingly and grudgingly, feeling sorry for myself at being trapped into doing something unpleasant? Am I afraid of what others may think of me if I fail to give a helping hand? What strikes me about Simon is that he walked with Jesus, and ended up giving the Romans the satisfaction of executing their victim. Those of us with a passion for justice step out to demonstrate in the public eye because of unjust laws, because we believe that black lives matter, that firearms must be banned or that asylum seekers deserve to be welcomed. Yet we know that we may not live to see the change for which we advocate. In the long run, our efforts, like Simon’s, may come to absolutely nothing. What matters, however, is that our personal integrity demands that we embrace the Cross of Jesus whenever it comes into our lives and into the lives of our sisters and brothers. Failure to go that way means that we end up losing our humanity, and as the song of Marist singer Chris Skinner reminds us: “it is human that were meant to be” (Chris Skinner SM, Human).
Whatever the thoughts and feelings Simon experienced, he stands in stark contrast to Jesus, who day in and day out selflessly walks with us as we carry the crosses that come our way – crosses of our own making and crosses given to us by others. Sometimes we let those crosses feed our bitterness, at other times we allow them to transform us, to contribute to our growth and development as human beings, as followers of Christ. In his uplifting sonnet As kingfishers catch fire…,the poet Hopkins offers us words of encouragement and hope, assuring us that we can be Christ to others every day of our lives:
for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
He could just as accurately have stated that Christ’s passion is repeated millions of times each day as his sisters and brothers shoulder crosses of terminal disease, injustice, persecution, prejudice and rejection. We know that we, too, will be numbered among them, that we may even be asked to fill the shoes of Simon of Cyrene. We also have the assurance that Jesus himself will accompany us every step of our journey to resurrection.
A few thoughts, now, on the unnamed Roman centurion who stood at the foot of Jesus on the Cross, and had a hand in his death. It was an American minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church, Kate Braestrup who first prompted me to reflect on the pronouncement attributed to that Roman centurion. Widowed with four children when her husband, a police officer in Maine, USA, was killed in a motor vehicle accident while on duty, Kate gained entry into an Ecumenical Seminary in 1997 and was ordained in 2004. She was motivated by the fact that her husband Drew had thoughts of becoming a minister himself, and the two of them had discussed that possibility at length in the months before he was killed. Kate combined theological study with rearing her young family. A journalist by profession, she has gone on to write books on spirituality, which have attracted the attention of the New York Times. In 2010 she published Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life. In this book, the centurion on Calvary is one of the topics of Braestrup’s reflections.
In today’s gospel reading there are no pyrotechnics associated with the moment of Jesus’ death. Mark observes that, at the moment Jesus died, the curtain in the Temple sanctuary was torn in two and that the centurion who had witnessed the manner of Jesus’ death declared: “Clearly, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15, 39).
The centurion’s words emanated from what he thought and felt as he witnessed Jesus’ agony and death. He concluded that he had been involved in the death of an innocent man. Somehow or other he was touched by the grace of God, not because of who he was, but because of who God is – endless love, hope, compassion and mercy for all of humanity. While we reflect on what happened to the centurion, there is an invitation to us, as we walk down from that hill of Calvary, to ask ourselves what we might do for the broken world of which we are a part. God’s hope is surely that we will live differently because of what Jesus has done for us? Might that mean being a little more sensitive to those around us, making ourselves available to help them to carry their crosses, reaching out in forgiveness and tolerance to those who have hurt us, speaking the truth with courage, compassion, integrity and love? There is a rich abundance of material for reflection in the passion narratives of all four Gospels. But we all need to give ourselves time and space to do the reflecting.