When we say the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, we move immediately from “Jesus Carries the Cross” to the Crucifixion. When we do the Stations of the Cross, however, there are several intermediate stages, one of which is “Simon of Cyrene Bears Jesus’ Cross.” We find the story about Simon and the cross in all three Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — but it is absent from John’s Gospel. Why?
I suggest we can discern in this difference one of the reasons why different Gospels sometimes provide different narratives about Jesus. In this instance, they offer two crucial perspectives, neither of which contradicts the other, and both of which teach an important lesson.
Consider John’s account. John emphasizes that it is through Christ’s sacrifice alone that we are saved. It is through His Crucifixion and Resurrection that our sins are forgiven and we have access to eternal life. All of this is in accord with what we read in Isaiah 53:5: “for he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” The focus here is on what the God-man did for us: his unmerited gift of himself to humankind.
When we are in times of trial, we can unite ourselves to Christ. Even in the face of mortal peril, we can say, “You, God, know my turmoil and pain. You have shared it. You have taken it on and borne it so as to raise it beyond itself. I learn from you that these dark times are the seeds of my redemption. I can have faith in that hard truth because you did not avoid walking the path you ask me to walk. You embraced human suffering wholly.” And thus the author of Sirach can say to us with his whole being:
My son, when you come to serve the LORD,
stand in justice and fear,
prepare yourself for trials.
Be sincere of heart and steadfast,
incline your ear and receive the word of understanding,
undisturbed in time of adversity.
Wait on God, with patience, cling to him, forsake him not;
thus will you be wise in all your ways.
Accept whatever befalls you,
when sorrowful, be steadfast,
and in crushing misfortune be patient;
For in fire gold and silver are tested,
and worthy people in the crucible of humiliation.
Trust God and God will help you;
trust in him, and he will direct your way;
keep his fear and grow old therein. (Sir 2:1-7)
We, like Christ, must bear the cross. But must we bear it alone? When we unite ourselves to Christ and resolve to bear a difficult and dangerous cross in a “time of adversity” and of “crushing misfortune,” must we bear that cross alone?
This is the importance of the story of Simon of Cyrene: even Jesus had help bearing His cross. “Bearing your cross” need not be understood as an admonition to Stoic individualism. While it is true that no one can bear your sufferings but you, the Gospel message is that you need not – indeed should not – bear them alone. In times of trial, we trust in the love and fidelity of God and of others: those doctors, lawyers, counselors, and friends who can become, as we are all called to become, instruments of God’s love and God’s healing grace.
Catholics who accept their Church’s sacramental understanding of Creation do not put God and human agents into an “either-or” formula. We look to God for our ultimate help for we know we can do nothing without His grace. And we can also look to others – friends, neighbors, counselors, specialists – to help guide us and comfort us along the way. They can help us bear the cross during those times when it simply becomes too heavy, and we fear we can’t make it even one step further.
And then we do. Somehow. With someone supporting us, someone bearing our burden, and with God bearing us both in His loving arms.
This Lenten season, let us take up our cross and bear it. What we will find, after a time, is that we are not carrying that cross; rather it is carrying us, helping to purify us of our idols and illusions, giving us greater wisdom, and making us more truly like Christ. But let us also look for others whose burdens we can share and with whom we can share ours. This, in the final analysis, is the meaning of “Church” – of what it means to be different members in the Spirit of the one Body of Christ, crucified and risen.
So let us unite ourselves to Christ during this blessed season in order to strip away and purge ourselves of all our unclean idols – devotion to wealth, power, pleasure, vanity, and riotousness – and give ourselves more fully to the One who gave Himself in love for us by giving ourselves in love to others.