[Fourth in a six-part Lenten Series on Mystical Images]
“It seems as though through purely earthly accidents we are made responsible for what is heavenly and divine.”
Karl Rahner wrote those words to describe what happened to Saint Joseph when he was asked by an angel to be the husband to Mary and support her in the birth and raising of Jesus: “Take the child to yourself.” Something of God was entrusted into his care, not because he wanted it, planned it, or because he himself was central to the event. He was asked to do something simply because of circumstance, because he was engaged to someone inside a great drama. Moreover, what he was asked to do radically reshaped his life in a way not according to his own choosing.
Rahner’s words are just as accurate when applied to Simon of Cyrene, the man conscripted to help Jesus carry his cross. The Passion accounts tell us that, when Jesus was too weak and wearied to carry the cross, a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene was forced to help him carry it.
We aren’t given any details as to how this happened other than that Simon was someone who was incidentally there, a “passer-by”, a victim of circumstance. This was not something for which he had planned or volunteered. He was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time. No doubt too, being conscripted to help carry the cross was an irritation and something humbling and shameful for him (guilt by association with a condemned criminal). Helping a scorned person carry his or her humiliation in front of a jeering crowd doesn’t exactly bring the same reaction as helping Tiger Woods carry his golf clubs.
Whatever Simon’s feelings, there can be not doubt that helping Jesus carry his cross was something that was unwanted, unpleasant, and was experienced at the time as an unfairness, bad luck.
Yet, ironically, this would be the most significant thing he would do in his whole life, earning him a place in history and folklore that can only be envied by the most famous of athletes, entertainers, politicians, writers, and religious figures. Simon of Cyrene will forever be famous. Thousands of years from now his name will still be remembered – and for the right reason, he helped carry the cross of Jesus.
There’s a wonderful mystical image here, namely, the picture of a man or woman being victimized by circumstance so that he or she, simply by being at a given place at a given time, is conscripted to do a task that is unwanted, unplanned for, humbling, disruptive of his or her own agenda and dreams, and yet this unwanted thing becomes, in the end, the most important thing he or she will ever do.
How does that happen to you? How do you become a Simon of Cyrene, helping Jesus carry his cross?
The cross of Jesus appears in many forms: Whenever you are the one who has to take care of an aging parent because circumstance arranges that you are the one who happens to be living close by; whenever you are the parent of a handicapped child and are asked to do things ordinary parents aren’t asked to do; whenever you are the one to whom the emotionally needy person at work chooses to reach out; whenever you are the one whose gentle nature makes it difficult to say no and people take advantage of you; whenever you are the one who is the first at the scene of an accident; whenever you are the one whom the drunk accosts on the side-walk; whenever you are the one who forever finds herself caught up in duties not of your own choosing that always have you around when the less-glamorous work needs to be done; whenever you are the one whose plans and dreams can be sacrificed because everyone else’s are deemed more important; whenever you’re the one whose life is disrupted by unwanted circumstance, you are Simon of Cyrene, helping Jesus carry the cross.
Simon of Cyrene was not central to the drama or meaning of Jesus’ passion and death. He was an unimportant figure who happened to be standing at the edges of things when the drama accidentally enfolded him and forced him to play an un-glamorous, self-effacing, but needed, role. His own agenda and plans had to be sacrificed and his response was, no doubt, less than fully enthusiastic. Yet this unplanned for, conscripted, humble service became the most important thing he ever did, his signature piece, and gave him a place in history beyond the thousands and millions whose place in the drama of life was deemed important.
There’s a lesson here: Henri Nouwen once wrote “I used to get upset about all the interruptions to my work until one day I realized that the interruptions were my real work.”
Pure earthily accidents often do make us responsible for what is divine and they conscript us to our real work.