Easter in a Time of Pandemic

Luke 11:20, Mark 15:21 – First Sunday after Easter

A reflection on Simon of Cyrene, cross-bearer

Easter is over, now what?  Here we are in a pandemic and maybe that Lenten feel hasn’t quite worn off.  But that is not unlike the early church, where both the crucifixion and the resurrection were near their heart and soul.  This Eastertide sermon was born on Good Friday.   I’m uncomfortable calling the day of crucifixion Good Friday.  It’s not good at all.  A day when the courageous, strong heart of Jesus is tortured to death for speaking truth to power, for showing love in the face of hate, is not a TGIF, thank God it’s Friday, Happy Hour.  

Some theologians say the Crucifixion and Easter resurrection are the turning point of history, God’s decisive victory of evil, suffering and death; and therefore, we rejoice.  I respect that point, but it does not satisfy me.  It mirrors the tendency in our culture to bypass and explain away suffering, to banish the sadness of death under a spray of lilies on the coffin.  We are supposed to get over things and move on.  Easier said than done when it is our heart that is broken.  Don’t get me wrong, I think every funeral is a celebration of life, and it is good to tell inspiring and humorous stories to remember the joy of those whom we love.  But I also always use the traditional prayer of consecration, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” so people know when to cry.  Our sadness needs a place to go, we need acknowledgement that suffering is real, and it hurts.

A week ago, on-let’s call it- Holy Friday, I read from the Gospel of Mark at evening Vespers, as Jesus is lead away to be crucified, 

 “21 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. 22 Then they brought Jesus[d] to the place called Golgotha.”

Simon of Cyrene grabbed my attention, and I can’t stop thinking about him.  I’ve been practicing the prayers of Ignatius de Loyola, who urged disciples to use their imagination, to get inside a biblical scene as a character, to stretch our heart into the moment and let God speak to us through imagination.  Try to step inside Mary’s consternation at the Annunciation, or Peter’s regret at denying Jesus three times.

I’ve been imagining my way into Simon of Cyrene, the bystander pressed into the task of carrying the cross up to Golgotha for an already physically broken Jesus.  Imagination always requires a little detective work.  The best crime solvers, like the character Armand Gamache in the Louis Penney novels, aren’t just superior rationalists.  They take clues and use their imagination to find motive.  Here are the clues I followed about Simon.  First, Simon is from Cyrene.  People from there keep emerging in the New Testament, like the striped-shirted Waldo, suddenly you notice them.  There were people from Cyrene in the crowd at Pentecost.  Did Simon the cross-bearer stick around?  In our reading from Luke 11, evangelists from Cyrene make their way up to Antioch and meet Barnabas, friend of Paul.  Is there a relationship?

Second Clue.  For some inexplicable reason, Mark tells us that Simon’s sons are named Rufus and Alexander.  Why should we care at this moment in the story, at the height of crime and crisis as Jesus goes to the cross, what Simon’s sons are named?  Or for that matter why should we even know Simon’s name?  Many important characters in the Gospels don’t get a name at all, especially women like the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman with the alabaster jar.  

It’s likely the Gospel writer knew Simon and Rufus and Alexander were important to the early Christian story.  Their names are included assuming the reader would recognize them, but over 2000 years we have lost the thread.  In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul sends greetings to a long list, including, “Salute Rufus chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.”  Early Christian tradition links this Rufus back to the son of Simon of Cyrene.  Both he and his brother Alexander were thought to be missionaries for early Christians.  

Let’s imagine this is how it was.   Simon sails from Cyrene, 900 miles from Jerusalem on the coast of Libya.  He was part of the diaspora of thousands of Jews who moved there to escape war 300 years before.  This was his once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover.  Through rough seas he lands in Tiberias, then rides a donkey for three days to Jerusalem, traveling with his wife and sons, Rufus and Alexander.  At the foot of the mountain of Jerusalem, they walk reverently, sing Psalms, climbing to the summit to the Great Temple, a wonder.  They were swept in the gates with hundreds of pilgrims, pressed tightly together.  Simon felt the exhilaration of the collective humanity, and the fear of being in a crowd of strangers, but he was finally at his spiritual home.  Seeing this was part of being who he was, of being Jewish.  Jews were from everywhere and spoke many languages.  He spoke Greek in Cyrene, maybe he studied Hebrew so he could understand the Passover ceremony.  Perhaps he had a moment to hear an interesting teacher, called Jesus, who outwitted his opponents with clever arguments and showed deep compassion.  He would like to find him again.

The next day he had arranged for a tour guide for his family to see the Great Temple, but something went awry.  He could feel a tension in the crowd, shouts of a mob close to them, the crowd pressing to see what was happening. He saw a bloodied and beaten man, soldiers with a cross.  An execution today?  It was the same clever Rabbi from the day before.

Suddenly one of the soldiers pointed at him, grabbed him by the arm, pulled him out of the crowd, and pressed him to lift the heavy crossbeam onto his shoulders and carry it for the exhausted teacher.  He carries the burden, hearing the curses and taunts directed to Jesus.  Simon could feel the sweat trickle down his back, shoulders aching, breathing heavily while climbing Golgotha.  This was not the pilgrimage he imagined for his family.  

As he completes his labors, relieved of his burden, his eyes meet for a moment with Jesus.  He sees a look of gratitude, eyes that are kind, even while pained and sorrowful, a man not afraid to die.  Who is this man?  This question would shape the rest of Simon’s life.  

What happened to Simon of Cyrene while he carried Jesus’s cross through that angry mob?  I’ve been in crowds like this.  I remember volunteering to escort women into a Planned Parenthood clinic through the protestors.  I can see the angry, twisted faces, shouting God’s judgement, their self-righteous lack of empathy.  Angry crowds stirred by religious fervor are the worst.  It broke my heart to see other Christians act this way.  Maybe that is what touched Simon too.

I think Simon of Cyrene longed for a different kind of faith. He went on pilgrimage for Passover to the great temple, but found instead the face of the living God, who loves us enough to notice our suffering and be with us.  Having seen violence and hatred and death, he became compelled by a vision a new kingdom.  He encountered the God who said, “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with me.”  

I only have my speculations, but I think it matters that we know Simon’s name, and his son’s names.  I think they were touched by the spirit and called by God.  I think they stayed and experience Pentecost, and moved to Antioch and were among those who first called themselves “Christians.”  

Why does Simon of Cyrene compel me?  I think because I too am a reluctant cross-bearer. In my journey seeking faith and understanding, God often finds me in the most challenging parts of my life.  I would rather not get involved in the suffering of the world.  I have an ideology of social justice and fairness, but I am hesitant to put myself on the line, in real solidarity.  I struggle to go from caring about “the poor” or “the homeless” to supporting Paul or Shane or Liz. I would rather explain the meaning of suffering to someone than meet them in their suffering.  

I would like to keep my defenses in place, but I can’t.  Why?  Because like Simon I was pulled out from the angry crowd, and called to compassion and justice, called like him to carry the cross for this man Jesus.  And now I can’t walk away.  Because his death was not the end.  I can’t prove the resurrection, and it is not about what is scientifically possible.  It’s a spirit, a hope, a light that just won’t go out, a sign of a living and life-giving God.  Friends, this is why I believe we can get through these times together.  Because nothing will separate us from God, not angry crowds, not a pandemic, home-schooling, Zooming, or isolation; not illness, grief, or even our own death.  Because Christ is Risen, and may he rise in you, and we will rise together.

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