There are some big, imposing characters in the Bible – Moses, David, Peter, Paul. But there are also little people – minor, seemingly insignificant characters who step onto the stage of biblical history for one brief moment, and then they are gone, never to be heard from again. But just because they are minor characters doesn’t mean they are unimportant. In the Bible, as in life, little people can make a big difference.
One such minor character is Simon of Cyrene. Except for one incident in his life, one act he was forced to perform, he would never have been known. But because of that one incident he is known the world over, wherever the gospel is preached, because this is the man who carried Christ’s cross.
The Bible says that on Good Friday, as Simon was going into the city, he ran squarely and unexpectedly into a mournful procession coming out of the city: three convicts, bloody and beaten, gasping and grunting under their heavy crosses, trudging out to Golgotha, where executions were done. When one of the convicts staggered and collapsed under the weight of his cross, the captain of the guard looked around, noticed Simon, pointed at him, and told him to pick up the cross and carry it.
Simon didn’t pick up Jesus’ cross in a spontaneous gesture of sympathy. Simon didn’t have a choice in this matter. In Bible times, when a Roman soldier told you to do something, you did it. “They compelled a passerby, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross…” (Mark 15:21). Carrying Jesus’ cross wasn’t something Simon especially wanted to do, but he did it. He was “compelled.”
You hear people talking about “a cross I have to bear.” When we say that we’re usually referring to our own personal crosses. But Simon’s story reminds us that, more often than not, the most important crosses we bear belong to someone else. I think of an elderly man I know whose wife – I’ll call her Mary – gradually disappeared into Alzheimer’s Disease. As it became more and more obvious that something was very wrong with Mary, her husband picked up her cross and he carried it – nursing her, caring for her, loving her – until the day she died. It’s not something he ever dreamed he would have to do, but he did it, and without a moment’s hesitation. He was compelled.
Like Simon, we don’t always have the opportunity to select the crosses that we feel compelled to carry. We’re just bystanders, going along in life, minding our own business, when suddenly we realize that someone else is too weak, too sick, too sad, or too overwhelmed to carry their cross, and that their cross is now ours to carry. This is not what we asked for; it’s not what we wanted. But like Simon, it is often the case that helping to carry someone else’s cross turns out to be about the most important thing that we do in our lives.