Simon of Cyrene - a short story for Easter

A few years ago whilst on retreat during Holy Week, at the request of the person leading the retreat, I started to reflect on a few of the peripheral characters in the Passion story. One in particular stood out for me: Simon of Cyrene. I was initially interested in the fact that this foreigner (Cyrene was in N. Africa) is mentioned in Mark 15:21 as the "father of Alexander and Rufus", suggesting that not only did he himself become known (and possibly a bit of a celebrity) in the early post-resurrection communities, but that his sons were prominent figures too.

What was his back story? How did he end up there at that precise moment? What effect did the experience of helping to carry Jesus' cross side by side with him have on Simon? All these questions and more began to fascinate me. One evening during the retreat, I began to write... that is how this story was born.


Simon of Cyrene

Bro. J. A. Hayes (Easter, 1994)

That year, Simon felt strangely compelled to make his first ever pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover. He could not explain why, but just knew that something important would happen there. He also felt he needed to get away, needed space and time on his own. Much as he loved his parents and they loved him, he could see their worry for him etched on their faces. And those lines were getting deeper. But it was such a long journey that he had half-expected his parents to refuse. With hindsight, Simon could see, however, that his mother and father had been ready to go to almost any lengths to get back the “old” Simon, the carefree, light-hearted lover of life, who had not yet recovered from the pain of losing his young wife, Rachel and their baby son, both of whom had died in the act of childbirth, now nearly two years ago. Two years... it seemed like an eternity.

And so it was, that his parents indeed gave their blessing, after having first made sure that there were other people they knew from Cyrene also making the pilgrimage that year and with whom he could travel.
Whilst on the road, Simon and his compatriots began to hear rumours about a particular prophet, Jesus, by name, that some were saying may be the Messiah sent to save Israel from the Romans. But after so many false dawns, he thought, why should this one be so different?

And yet... he had been having some rather distressing dreams of late that began to get more and more vivid the nearer he got to Jerusalem. In them he imagined himself alone on a hill-side, carrying a cross-beam of wood that was strapped to the backs of his arms, up to a place where he was to be crucified. Each time he had the dream, he would stumble and fall under the weight of the cross-beam. And each time he would see out of the corner of eyes stinging with blood and sweat, a pair of legs move towards him, and then someone would slowly help him to his feet. Then, just as he was about to look at the kind person’s face, he would wake up in a cold sweat. He began to wish that he had not set off on this journey, for though he did not recognise the setting of his dream, he somehow felt it to be Jerusalem, the place to which he was heading. Others in his group had also spoken of strange dreams, none of which he understood and none of which mentioned a crucifixion, but which nonetheless contrived to heighten Simon’s apprehension about what lay ahead for him at the Holy City.



The group’s favourite topic of conversation on the road was indeed this prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, A remarkable man, it seemed, whether or not he indeed was the Messiah. Two nights before their arrival in Jerusalem, they shared a camp-fire with Aram, a jovial, middle-aged, pot-bellied Syrian trader travelling down to Egypt with his caravan of family, servants, goods and animals. He had just come from Jerusalem. There he had heard that this Jesus character was on his way to Jerusalem with some of his followers. The city was apparently buzzing in anticipation, though not all the buzz was positive.

So Jesus would be in the Holy City for the Passover, Simon said to himself. That thought seemed to register in the minds of his fellow pilgrims, judging by their faces, though no-one said it out loud. They simply sat there in a heavy silence that even seemed to afflict the talkative Syrian. That night, not one of the group of Diaspora pilgrims slept easily; their minds occupied by disturbing dreams and thoughts of at last finding a leader to reunite the lost people of Israel and overthrow their oppressors, the Romans.

*****************************************

Aram viewed the wide-eyed reaction of those Jewish pilgrims to the news about Jesus with an amused detachment. He ignored God and his prophets and preferred that God ignore him. Except, of course when it suited him, such as now with his wife Leah’s stomach complaint and her constant moaning. That night, however, he too dreamt about this Jesus. The dream - or rather the nightmare - disturbed him greatly: a gruesome crucifixion, blood everywhere, an intense fear, screams of anguish... and a pair of eyes that seared into him with a love so intense, so vulnerable, so knowledgeable and yet so humble. Those eyes saw into all the nasty corners of his nature and yet the love remained, more strongly even, if that were possible. One of the pilgrims was in the dream also. A thoughtful young man he’d noticed in the group that evening.

The following morning, while his servants were packing up and readying for departure, he sought out the young man. His name was Simon, he discovered. They chatted about this and that. Aram did not mention his dream. He could read on Simon’s face that he too had experienced something very powerful during the night, though he also kept silent about it. When it was time to go, Aram shook Simon’s hand and said to him and his companions, “I hope you find what you are looking for.” “You too, Aram,” Simon replied, with a quizzical but warm expression on his face. He liked this young man, he decided. At that moment he thought of his own dead son, his only child, and felt a pain more intense than any he had felt in years. This was accompanied by a sudden, irrational urge to abandon his family and their caravan and go with Simon back to Jerusalem to see Jesus. But even as he thought this, he knew it was ridiculous. His nephew and his own brother would be able to look after most things in his absence, but he couldn’t abandon his wife. He did actually love her very deeply and knew that it was the illness that made her so bad tempered.


He smiled a half-hearted smile, lowered his eyes to the ground, almost in shame, and shuffled away letting out a deep sigh. But something had changed inside of him since the dream. Like a buried flower bulb that starts to produce a new stem when feeling the first signs of spring warmth permeate the soil, he felt a new life growing in his heart. A kind of rebirth. It hurt, because it reopened old wounds that he had managed to paper over, and yet he had never felt so alive. Over the following days he began to see the world around him in a new and more positive light. His wife, Leah, was the first to notice through the way that he now attended to her so sensitively. Through him she found her own physical and emotional suffering far easier to bear. They both even started praying daily.

On their return through Judea, a couple of months later, laden with fine jewels, metals and precious oils, they stopped to do some trade in Jerusalem. Aram took the opportunity to find out what had happened at the Passover, for he had heard rumours of a crucifixion. Just as they were about to leave the city, he bumped into Simon. There had indeed been a crucifixion: the prophet Jesus and two common criminals. And much drama besides. Simon radiated joy and peace as he told Aram of his encounter with Jesus and of how his life had been transformed, despite the violent, inhuman nature of Jesus’ death. A number of Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen him alive some days after his burial, including Simon himself. That part didn’t make any sense. and yet this young Jew’s life now seemed to have such a dynamic sense of purpose. Indeed, Aram’s own inner transformation echoed that of the young Jew.

Simon then mentioned that he was setting off for his hometown that very next day. Aram asked him if he had found what he was looking for. “No,” Simon replied, “I’ve found far more than I could ever have imagined.” He looked steadily at Aram. “You’ve found something yourself as well though, haven’t you. You seem... happy.” “I’ve been found by God,” Aram said, “And all this time I didn’t know that he was looking for me.” The look they then shared spoke of a deep mutual understanding and friendship. Once more they shook hands. Aram promised that when he was next in the region of Cyrene he would come and visit.

He returned with his caravan to Damascus in Syria and decided to settle down, devoting himself to making sure that he and Leah made the most of what time they had left together. His nephew looked after the business and made sure that Aram and his wife had all they needed. He began meeting with some Jews from the local synagogue who had been followers of Jesus, to learn more about him and his teachings. Two years after the events in Jerusalem Leah died, but those two years were the happiest they had spent together. Despite the grief he felt in the days after her death, his inner peace remained unshaken. It wasn’t long before he knew what he now had to do. He officially handed over the business to his nephew and set off on the long journey to Simon’s hometown of Cyrene with just his most faithful servant for company. He wanted to devote his life to spreading the message of Jesus and was sure that Simon would help him do this. Simon welcomed him with open arms and they worked together as apostles of the Christ (as he was now known) for many years.

*****************************************

After the night around the camp fire with the Syrian, Aram, his relatives and the other pilgrims, Simon and his compatriots said good-bye to Aram. They wished each other well. Simon did his best to hide his discomfort after another night of vivid, disturbing dreams, but was sure he’d failed. He worried that he seemed distant. But something wasn’t quite the same in Aram either. He’d certainly had a great deal of wine the night before, but this wasn’t a hangover. Maybe his sleep had also been disturbed by dreams. The events of the following few days were to give Simon an explanation for all their dreams, and far more besides.

On arriving in Jerusalem, he was surprised to hear that many of the Jews viewed Jesus’ impending arrival with trepidation, fearing some kind of Roman backlash. Many doubted his credentials for being the Messiah, some having given up all hope that the Messiah would ever come. It was therefore mainly left to the Jews of the Diaspora (those who had kept the flame of faith alive in exile) to the line the streets, together with Jesus’ own followers, and cheer his king-like entry into the Holy City. Simon noticed groups of senior Jews at a slight distance, huddled conspiratorially, like stony-faced vultures. Their features became vastly more animated, however, when they later witnessed Jesus throw the Temple traders and money-changers out of the Court of the Gentiles. This action, Simon realised, began to polarise the public’s opinion of Jesus even greater; the traders cursing and insulting him in what he angrily reminded them was a house of prayer; and the beggars, lepers and general outcasts flocking to him, like pups to their mother at feeding time. The latter group probably saved Jesus from being arrested in the Temple by their actions.

Simon himself didn’t quite know how to react. He noticed one or two Chief Priests cast an eye at him and his fellow pilgrims, and this made him feel rather uncomfortable, persuading him not to follow his natural instinct and approach Jesus. His own cowardice saddened him, for there was something about this friend of the underdog that made him seem very approachable. But more than that, Simon had felt his heart set on fire by Jesus’ words and actions since his arrival, and was sure that he was not alone in this.

As he followed Jesus in the crowd during the next few days, watching him heal, hearing him preach, seeing him listening to people, it seemed that the dark cloud over his heart was finally, inexorably lifting, letting through a few tentative rays of sunshine back into his life. Something important was happening to Simon here in Jerusalem, this much he knew, but exactly what he did not know. He had surprised himself one afternoon by smiling, almost laughing even, while watching Jesus give a one-legged boy the piggy-back ride of his young life. The boy's excited screams and joyous laughter brushed over him like a cool, refreshing breeze, though he was not sure who was enjoying it the most; the boy, or Jesus, judging by the look of innocent pleasure on the prophet’s face. How Simon wished that he himself were once more a small child (even one-legged!). But as a healthy adult, Simon didn’t quite know how to introduce himself (not realising that Jesus would have been well aware of his inner wounds and of his need for healing). Later that night, on the eve of the Passover, he left the city to find some quiet and to pray to God for discernment. He resolved to seek out Jesus the next day and let God put the necessary words in his mouth. After all, it was God, so it seemed to him now, who had called Simon to Jerusalem in the first place.

The next day, however, did not go according to plan. Simon was woken by cries and loud voices coming from outside. He dressed hurriedly and rushed out of his lodging without taking breakfast. He saw people all hurrying in one direction, towards what seemed the origin of the sounds. The pit of his stomach confirmed before any word of mouth could do so, what he had belatedly realised after his recurring dream had once more visited him during the night; someone was indeed to be crucified here in Jerusalem. With a growing horror he realised that it was Jesus.

He now ran, barging past less urgent onlookers, not stopping to think why all this was happening, hurtling like a man possessed, eventually arriving at a junction in the street. There he was stopped in his tracks by a most sickening sight. The street now before him to his left and right, was lined by traders from the Temple, Chief Priests and elders of his church - Jesus’ church. These and other spectators were hurling verbal and physical abuse at a forlorn, semi-naked and badly-bruised, whipped and bleeding body, just passing him at that moment. There, indeed, was Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph, the Messiah, whom some said was the Son of God, deserted by his followers, struggling to carry a large cross-beam of wood on his back, like a common criminal. He was being led to a hill that Simon could now see up to his left, where he would be crucified.

At that moment Jesus suddenly stumbled and fell to the ground. On top of everything else, his nose was now bleeding. A perverse crown of thorns dug deep into his forehead, producing a steady stream of blood down his face to accompany that from his bleeding nose. Simon’s mind struggled to keep pace with what was happening, for he was now acting under the thrall of his dream. He moved forward towards Jesus, only for his way to be blocked by a soldier at Jesus’ side. The soldier glanced down below him at the figure struggling to lift himself off the ground, then turned to Simon and said, coldly, “You, Jew, get him up!” Simon lent forward and gingerly lifted the left-hand end of the wooden beam. Slowly, needing what seemed an extraordinary effort of will, as if carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, Jesus got to his feet. Simon’s pulse quickened (if that were possible), for this was where his dream ended. The rest was now up to him.

Jesus turned his head and looked at Simon and it was suddenly as if, like in the dream, they were the only two people there, (though with the dream roles reversed). All the noise, all the insults now raining down on him too, didn’t register. For, what Simon now saw made his heart brim over. Despite the physical pain evident in the wounds and bruises on his body, Jesus’ eyes shone into his own with such brightness, such love, such strength, such understanding and such thankfulness, that Simon knew that He, the Son of God, would not be defeated, no matter what they did to him. And that he would always love them, his people; love them all, even his persecutors. Simon somehow managed to hold this gaze that seemed to search his deepest essence. In that instant he knew that his whole life was being laid bare before the eyes of his Saviour, the Messiah, the Chosen One. It was as if his was beginning anew at that moment, as if he was being re-born. He felt that he was looking into the face of his Creator and being re-created.


A kick on the back of the leg from the soldier brought Simon back to reality. The soldier then untied Jesus’ arm from the wood and motioned Simon to carry that end. Being slightly taller than Jesus Simon had to stoop slightly to keep the wood level across both his and Jesus’ shoulders. As the pair of them then set off up the hill, Jesus whispered an almost inaudible “Thank you”. All the insults, the punches, the whipping, the spit, now had two targets. Simon was glad that he did not have to face this barrage alone and then realised that Jesus probably felt the same way. Simon would forever feel overwhelmed with emotion when recalling these events. He had been so blessed as to help his Saviour carry the instrument through which he would show the depth of his and his father’s love for the whole of humanity.

When they finally reached the top of the hill and the wood was removed from their shoulders, Jesus turned to Simon and said “Your wife and son will be safe with me in heaven.” Simon collapsed to his knees, no longer able to restrain the emotions that had been building up inside of him. Jesus placed his hands on Simon’s head. Simon choked back the tears and said, “Thank you”. Then he felt a voice seem to resonate inside of him saying, “Remember me!” He looked up, catching a final glimpse of those eyes before he felt the boot of a soldier explode into his stomach and rip away his breath. A second kick seemed to break some ribs. A third to the face broke his nose and left him semiconscious.

So it was through a haze of tears, blood, numbing pain and a growing sense of incomprehension and anger, that Simon saw them hammer Jesus to the cross. A fellow pilgrim from his group appeared at his side and helped him scramble out of boot-shot of the soldiers. He had much trouble breathing, though as his breath slowly returned, Jesus’ began to fade. After a while, with the help of his friend, he managed to stand. The least I can do, he thought, is to stand and honour him. But even that proved difficult and not because of his injuries. All thoughts of honour, of his own inner healing, of his comparatively slight physical wounds were blown away by the utter savagery and inhuman brutality of what three men on crosses were having to endure. Hatred for those responsible welled up inside of him. He was still crying. Through the tears he noticed how unnaturally dark the sky had become.

Every time Jesus tried to lift himself up to breathe, his whole body tensed and shook. His eyes, once so majestic, now screwed shut with the effort required to merely stay alive. Then suddenly, as if sensing the hatred filling Simon’s mind and the minds of his followers and family dispersed amongst the now thinning crowd, Jesus somehow manage to say the words, “Forgive them.... they don’t.... know what.... they’ve done....”. On beginning the last word, his whole body seemed to arch upwards towards the sky, like an ensnared bird, struggling to fly. He then cried out in a voice that tore in two the hearts of those who heard it, “Abba!! Why have you abandoned me?". Two final whispered words, “It’s done,” seemed to release his body from it’s torment. As he expelled them in a final sigh, his body sunk back down limply onto the cross.

He had loved them all to the end, even those who killed him. Simon’s pent up hatred drained instantly. He sunk to the ground, deflated, distraught. Strangely, he now felt as if he had known Jesus all his life, as if his closest soulmate had been murdered in front of him. Indeed this was the case, for in the few minutes they spent together more seemed to pass between them than a whole lifetime of friendship would normally provide. Simon somehow knew at that instant that Jesus' death would not keep them apart and that they would be soulmates forever.

Around him there was a stunned silence, but for the rustle of a gentle breeze. Then the wailing started. A rumbling in the ground began, the wind suddenlt picked up and a storm broke in the sky above. It was as if the elements themselves were revolting. Most people fled, but Jesus' family, his closest followers and a few remorseful soldiers now on their knees remained.

Simon’s friend picked him up and tried to move him away. He resisted, though he was barely able to do anything more than sob convulsively. He witnessed them take down Jesus' broken body. A woman he imagined to be Jesus' mother cradled him tenderly on her lap. It was all too much. He collapsed again. The next thing he knew he was back in his lodging lying down. He drifted in and out of a sleep haunted by what had happened. When he finally awoke, pain coursing through his body, he was left with the image in his mind of Jesus giving Simon’s dead son a ride on his shoulders and his wife looking on, laughing.

By the time Simon heard, a few days later, that Jesus had apparently risen from the dead and had appeared to a number of people, including the group of his closest followers, he was already drained of emotion, having spent much of his time crying since the events on the hill. Though intensely gladdened by the news, it merely confirmed to Simon that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. He would be confined to bed for a few more days because of his injuries, so he sought to obtain a parchment and stylus, and wrote a message for his parents, saying that all was well but that he would be staying in Jerusalem a few weeks more. This he sent via the hands of a pilgrim returning to Simon’s home area. It would indeed be some weeks before he would be strong enough to attempt the return journey. Once he was well enough to leave his bed, he began to seek out some of Jesus’ followers to try and find out as much as he could about him. This proved rather difficult, as many of them had gone into hiding. Nevertheless, he persevered and was eventually recognised by a group of Jesus’ disciples who had seen him help carry their master’s cross. To Simon’s acute embarrassment, he was treated as something of a hero. One of them, a beautiful, light-hearted young woman from Emmaus, Sarah, by name, came back to his lodging to help nurse his wounds. And despite himself he soon fell in love.

The night before he left for home Simon's sleep was once again disturbed, but this time he swore it was not a dream. Jesus appeared in his room. He sat on Simon's bed and they discussed what lay ahead for Simon, the work that Jesus wanted him to do. Simon had so much he wanted to ask, in particular about his dead wife and son. Jesus seemed to read these thoughts, smiled and said that they just wanted him to be happy. Tears came once more, but these were borne of an intoxicating mixture of joy, love, sadness, exhilaration and gratitude. Jesus took him in his arms a moment, then placed his scarred hands on Simon's head. A gentle glow filled the room with warmth. Words could not describe how Simon felt in that moment. Time stood still, his heart stopped beating and he felt simultaneously one with himself, with Jesus and God, his Father, with the whole of creation. He saw Rachel and their son come and place their hands on his head too. Jesus said, "Remember this and remember me. Tell them all how much I love them." In their encounter on the hill Simon had been healed by Jesus. Now he was being given a mission...

His parents couldn’t believe the transformation in him on his return home (and not just the newly re-shaped nose). Their prayers had been answered after all. Sarah came with him and they married the following year, eventually having 5 children (3 sons and 2 daughters). One day an ebullient Aram turned up on his doorstep looking much trimmer and offering his services to the followers of Jesus in Cyrene. Simon and Aram became leaders in what was much later to become known as the Christian community of Cyrene. Simon was considered a holy man and was well-respected by all, even non-Christians. When he talked about the events at Jerusalem he did so in total humility, reliving every aspect as if he was still there. His listeners never failed to be spellbound. Through him many became believers. His children - and later his grand-children - adored him, and he was often seen giving them piggy-back rides and whirling them around in the air.

His last words, whispered into his eldest son’s ear were, “Remember him!”
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