“Behold the Wood of the Cross” First Address for Good Friday 2015 by Roberta Berke
“They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.”[i]
Suppose, while you were on your way here, suddenly the police pulled you aside. They’ve arrested a terrorist suspect and now they order you to carry his backpack. As you lift up this bulging dirty bag, it feels very heavy: are there explosives inside? The frayed straps chafe at your shoulders; the buckles dig into your hands. The bag reeks of grease and stale sweat.
Something like this happened to Simon of Cyrene. He was suddenly forced by Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha. Simon had simply been passing by, he was visiting Jerusalem from Cyrene. Cyrene in Libya was a town with a large Jewish population. Simon was a Jewish name, though his sons had Greek and Roman names, so Simon was probably a Hellenised Jew. He may have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and perhaps to do some business as well, since Cyrene exported medicinal herbs.
Certainly Simon didn’t volunteer to help this Roman execution squad. He was walking into Jerusalem, Jesus and the soldiers were walking in the opposite direction, out of the city. The Roman centurion did not relieve Jesus of his burden because he felt sorry for him. Jesus had collapsed. He was very weak from losing so much blood after being scourged with sharp whips that cut deep into his flesh. The centurion needed to hurry along his prisoner quickly, because he had two other criminals to execute as well, and if his squad hesitated, the locals might start a riot. The centurion would not shame any of his soldiers by ordering them to carry the cross. Among the crowd he saw a middle aged man staring sadly at the prisoner as if in sympathy. Well, he thought, if that Jew feels so sorry for this criminal, let him carry his cross.
The Romans were highly efficient in everything they did, including crucifixions. To save time, the upright stake of the cross was left in place, especially in turbulant provinces, where rebels were frequently crucified. Only the horizontal crossbeam was carried by the condemned man. Over the centuries there have been so many supposedly relics of the true cross, so many cherished slivers of wood, that if put together they would make a forest. There are fanciful legends about various flowering trees, whose wood may have been used to make the cross. However, if you want to discover what Jesus’ cross would really have looked like, go to a builders’ skip. Among the dusty rubble, look for an old scrap of wood with twisted nails, wood which the builders rejected. In first century Judaea, wood was so scarce that when Roman soldiers needed timber for the siege of Jerusalem, they had to go twelve and a half miles out into the countryside to get any wood.[ii] New wood was too scarce and far too expensive to waste on crucifying criminals. Scrap wood was reused for crosses. This cross beam was an old timber, possibly a rafter from a demolished house, or a plank from a wrecked ship. It was split, full of knots, jagged and bent. Jesus, a master carpenter, would have thrown out this scrag-end of wood.
How heavy was this cross beam? No one knows for certain. Estimates vary, possibly about 100 lbs, or 45 kilos. For Simon of Cyrene it felt very heavy indeed. He realised he was no longer a strong young man. He tried to adjust the beam over one shoulder, then over his other shoulder, then he tried to carry it with both hands in front of him, all while the centurion was shouting at him: “hurry up! hurry up!” Finally Simon bent over and balanced the cross beam across both shoulders, like an ox’s yoke. The wood clawed splinters into his hands, it was slippery with blood and it smelled of sweat and rot. Men had died on this wood before; men would die on this wood again.
Jesus, when he had predicted his death, said, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[iii] When people are talking about something they find difficult to cope with, they often say, “It’s a cross I have to bear.” But by “cross” Jesus meant much more than just a painful situation. By “deny yourselves”, he asks us to deny our selfish impulses, and to act for the good of other people. To “take up the cross” means not only to accept pain, but also to bear the difficulties of being identified as Christians, people who carry his cross in a world which is often hostile. Jesus asks us to follow him in his way of life, to walk in his path, even if it leads to a shameful death.
Jesus’ cross is a heavy burden for us to bear. We often stumble under its weight. Walking in the way of the cross is so difficult that often we fail, we wander from Jesus’ path. We make feeble excuses, we plead human weakness, we refuse and even rebel. God knows our weakness, even more than we know ourselves. God forgives us and helps us. St. Paul says, that no temptation, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”[iv] However overwhelming any testing, any temptation, may be, God will enable us to endure it.
Why do the gospel writers remember Simon of Cyrene by name? No name is recorded for the centurion, or for the soldiers, or for the two thieves crucified with Jesus. Even on that terrible day when Jesus died and everything seemed lost, we are reminded of Simon of Cyrene’s sons, Alexander and Rufus. They would become active in the growth of the young church in Rome. Although Roman soldiers crucified Jesus, soon in Rome, in the heart of their empire those who bear Jesus’ cross will endure and will triumph.
- Mark 15.21
- Josephus, The Jewish War VI.7, Loeb Classical Library 210: 220-221.
- Mark 8.34
- I Corinthians 10.13