Monday, March 26, 2012

Simon of Cyrene: Palm Sunday, April 1, 2012

Gospel Reading: The Passion of the Christ, from St. Mark's Gospel

Homily: Palm Sunday, The Passion of the Christ, April 1, 2012

There is nothing I could say to add to what we have read. No words could serve to portray any better than those inspired of the Spirit and written by Mark, the companion of Peter, in today’s reading of the Passion. But let’s try to envision the story, again for the first time, from the perspective of one oft-forgotten man for just a few moments.

The procession rounded the corner. You could see him now, the teacher. Staggering under the load of a great beam of wood. Stumbling barefoot over the uneven paving blocks in the street. Sweating under the rising sun of an April day, just getting warmer. Half-blinded by streaks of blood in his eyes, dripping down from punctures made by a twist of thorn-twigs pushed down on his brow. It’s a long way from here to the place of the Skull. Can he make it? Will he be able to carry this load? It’s not fair to make a man carry the instrument of his own execution; but then life itself is not fair.

The crowd murmured; the man under the wood fell to one knee. “Get up”. The centurion was brusque and heartless. “Get up”. The poor wretch tried, and then sagged to both knees. He was clearly exhausted, unable to keep going. “You there!” Simon saw the centurion’s massive hand pointing. “You there. African! Come here. Pick up this wood.” Simon felt his heart race; his lips started to form words that would not come. The officer pointed again, then reached out and grasped Simon’s arm. “I said jump to it. We need you here. Carry this cross. You’re going to Golgotha with it.”

The Scripture according to St. Mark puts all of this into one simple verse, a few lean words, in Mark 15:21:

They pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear His cross.

Why we should concern ourselves with this Simon of Cyrene? We might just overlook him—after all there are a lot more noteworthy figures to look at. But just notice one thing—Mark calls him “the father of Alexander and Rufus.” And who are they? Keep in mind that Mark is a companion of St. Peter, and St. Peter was in Rome by this time. St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans mentions a man named Rufus as a leader in the Roman church. St. Mark would not have mentioned Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus, in his Gospel unless they were part of the Christian community, probably the community in Rome. Is it too much to suppose that because Simon of Cyrene carried the cross and was changed, his sons also followed Christ?

3 short observations from this one verse on Simon of Cyrene, and then the lesson today will be yours.

1. There is an Unavoidable Confrontation with the Cross of Christ.

Let’s go back to the scene, now just a few minutes after Simon is pressed into carrying the cross of Christ.

Some were leading. Some were following. Some were shouting. A few spat on him. A handful were crying. In the middle of it all was Simon, unexpectedly carrying this cross. No longer moving into the city toward the place of Passover sacrifice but out of the city and up a small hill outside the walls.

Simon was confronted with a cross; some people find the cross; sometimes the cross finds you. God had a divine appointment with Simon that day; sometimes he makes Divine Appointments with us. Like Simon, these aren’t in the form of an invitation in our Outlook calendars, they are not something we can plan for, and they may involve tasks we would prefer not to do. But, like Simon, these often lead to some of life’s greatest blessings, and they can transform us if we let them.

You may see it differently, but here’s how I see it:

As Simon struggled up the hill under the weight of this 80-100lb. patibulum, or crossbar, he looked over to see this condemned man, whose cross he was carrying, looking right back at him. Simon would say later that what he saw in that glance changed him forever. He saw not anger nor remorse, but a look of gratitude, but more than gratitude, compassion. Imagine the look of love from the ragged face of Christ, the look of understanding, the tenderness in the midst of all this madness.

That’s what you find at the cross…you come there with all of your failures and frustrations, you’re looking for just SOMEONE who can understand what’s going on, and with one look, you find understanding, compassion, encouragement, and hope. No one will ever love you that way.

And in a very real way, Christ needs you to carry his cross, today, too. It’s as if he is saying “I have no other way to let people know how much I love them, than by you carrying this around for me for the rest of your life. It’s not your arguments that are going to convince them, it’s not even your church, or your nice singing, or even your religious services—you’re never going to be more like me, you’re never going to be more my follower than when you carry this around for me.”

When they finally reached Golgotha, the soldiers told Simon he could drop the cross and leave, but he could not leave. He watched at a distance. He watched rough nails driven into hands and feet. He watched a cross raised up between heaven and earth. He listened to the mocking crowd, he heard the whispered prayer of Jesus: “Father Forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Simon knew that these were not the words of a criminal. These were the words only the Son of God would utter. Truly this man was the Christ, the Savior of the world.
Simon never made it to the Temple that day. Later that day he came to realize that the real sacrifice was not the Passover lamb in the temple, but Jesus, the “Lamb of God” slain on that cross.

Later that night Simon felt something embedded in his palm: a rough wooden splinter from the Cross of Christ. He pulled it out, wrapped it up carefully in a cloth. And when he got home and his family asked what the highlight of his pilgrimage trip was, he pulled out the splinter and told them about how he helped Jesus carry his cross and how Jesus carried his sin. I bet he told his sons Alexander and Rufus that story every day.

There is an Unavoidable Confrontation with the Cross of Christ

2. There is an Inescapable Command to Carry the Cross of Christ

We are commanded to do voluntarily the same thing that Simon was forced to do. “He who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” Jesus said in Matthew 10:38. It’s not like Jesus is recruiting for the Marines, and wants us to know how tough this is going to be, or that we wants to scare us. After all, he loves us dearly enough to die for us. There’s a more important reasons why we need a cross—He says it’s the only way you will ever know what it’s like to be like Christ. In Luke 9:23, Jesus says “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” It’s one of the few things that Jesus says you have to do every day.

And it’s YOUR cross, too. That cross is custom-built for you. It’s the only cross like it in the world, because it has your name on it. For most of it, we know it all too well. Sometimes it’s a cross of disappointment; it may be a cross of a painful divorce or an early, untimely death of a loved one. It’s a cross of suffering, or losing your job, your dignity. Maybe it’s a cross of obscurity, serving behind the scenes, laboring unseen, unnoticed, alone. It may be many things for you this Holy Week, but that cross has your name on it, and Jesus gave it to you…Yes, you can always drop it and walk away—no centurion will force it this time, no parent, loved one, wife or child or clergy will make you carry it—but if you carry it just one more day, through just one more challenge, just one more difficulty, soon you too will be with him in Paradise.

I can’t tell you all the names of those daily cross-bearers here at Our Lady of the Pines; I would never embarrass any of them publicly, but they are a tremendous encouragement. Just like the children of Simon of Cyrene, Rufus and Alexander, I too am a child of the ones who carry their crosses at Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Church, because they help me to find strength to get back up, and carry my own cross.

You probably don’t see him, we are all just too busy, and he tends to sit in the back at Church. It’s hard for him to get down to Communion, as the years have left him hobbled. But every time I have the blessing to give him the precious Body of Christ in Communion, there is a smile, a shared imparting of grace, as he struggles up, bows his head, and receives the Christ, and shuffles away. And as he walks away, I can always see that there’s a cross on his back, I see it clear as day, a cross of pain, of the sufferings and indignities of age, perhaps of loneliness … but he carries that cross with a smile, a trusting faith, and those splinters in his back have transformed many lives. And someday he will hear those wondrous words, “well done, my good and faithful servant.” And with his life and his example, he helps me to take a few more steps down that road myself.  Thanks, brother and you know who you are…but today, for the rest of the people here, let me just call you “Simon of the Pines, Simon of Black Forest.”

There is an Unavoidable Confrontation with the Cross of Christ.
There is an Inescapable Command to Carry the Cross of Christ

3. Finally, there is an Unquestionable Transformation by the Cross of Christ

There is a tradition, mentioned by the mediaeval Catholic priest and biblical scholar Cornelius Lapide, that Rufus, the son of Simon of Cyrene, became a bishop in Spain, and that Alexander, the son of Simon suffered martyrdom for his faith. The cross of Christ transforms us, one life at a time, and that transformation transforms others. 

Our lives leave an influence, particularly upon our family. St. Mark mentions these sons of Simon as if his readers will recognize who they are…and they were transformed by the example of their dad. I know we have examples of godly women in the Bible, especially around the cross, but here’s a godly dad. Praise God for those examples in our parish today. Hey dad, keep carrying that cross—someday your kids will thank you, and perhaps follow after you.  

So what are the lessons we can learn from Simon of Cyrene as we begin this most sacred of all times, Holy Week?

There is An Unavoidable Confrontation with the Cross of Christ.
There is An Inescapable Command to Carry the Cross of Christ
There is An Unquestionable Transformation by the Cross of Christ

May God bless us as we carry our own cross, and so follow Christ.


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