When something happens that we don’t like, we tend to blame someone – sometimes justly, sometimes not. So it is with the death of Jesus Christ, which the Church commemorates today. Some Christians have held the entire Jewish people responsible, an error rejected by the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council. Others point the finger at the religious and secular authorities of the time, Jewish and Roman respectively, and at those who have followed their example since, seeking to crucify Christ in the form of his followers – as ISIS does today, literally.
But the Church has always held that each of us is a cause of the crucifixion, since Christ “is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world”. There are many ways in which we can react to this claim. We can run away, like the young man in the Garden of Gethsemane. We can promise to stay with Christ, like Peter – and then run away none the less, or at least deny him. We can betray him, like Judas, or stand by him, like the women who “looked on afar off”. Like the centurion, we can even proclaim him the Son of God.
Being fickle, as people are, we can do all these things – especially if we’re in a mob. Some of the people who cried “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday were doubtless among those who cried “Crucify him” only five days later. In this way and others, the story of Holy Week is ancient but, like a Shakespeare play, it can be recast in today’s world and seem fresh. The headlines almost write themselves. Your X-Factor choice: Jesus or Barabbas? The choice we face is between competence and chaos, warns Pilate. Simon Peter trolled on Twitter. The Last Supper: did Jesus have two kitchens?
Most likely, however, we simply ignore him. This would have been so for most of the inhabitants of Jerusalem on that original Good Friday. Some would have heard of the wonder-worker from Galilee but, for most, any news of his execution would have been greeted with a shrug. After all, crucifixions were the order of the day. The Romans had crucified two thousand rebels in 7AD, when Christ would have been a child, after a minor revolt that followed the death of King Herod – the man who failed to achieve what Pontius Pilate later signed off.
Those atrocities would have been known to a visitor to Jerusalem whose path that morning happened to meet that of a bloody, exhausted man who could no longer carry his patibulum – the cross-beam to which his arms would later be nailed. This was “one Simon a Cyrenian”, who had come “out of the country” and was then compelled by the Roman soldiers supervising the execution “to bear his cross”. St Mark’s Gospel says that Simon was “the father of Alexander and Rufus”. This suggests that he was known to the Gospel writers, or their sources. He may even have become a Christian.
Who knows? But either way, he is the very model of a figure venerated in some Conservative quarters. When he was editor of this site, Tim Montgomerie championed a “conservatism for the Little Guy”. Simon of Cyrene may have been a big man, for he was singled out to shoulder a heavy weight, but he is none the less the ultimate Little Guy: put-on by authority, ordered about, bossed into a task he would surely rather not have undertaken. We don’t know why he was in Jerusalem. Maybe he was an observant Jew, there for the Passover. But whatever his plans were, they were rudely interrupted.
He may have felt compassion for the tortured figure before him. Or just exasperation, since the execution of this felon was delaying his itinerary for the day. Perhaps he felt nothing much at all. But he has a unique distinction. Some in the crucifixion story fled from Christ, while others stuck with him to the end. However, only one person in the tale actually gave him any practical help – the man from Cyrene, who helped to relieve the burden which, the Church proclaims, Christ himself shouldered for all mankind. The Little Guy played a supporting part in the Greatest Story Ever Told.
Our lives can change, for better or worse, when we least expect them to, like that of the man from Cyrene. How do we respond, either way? With joy, grief, anger, denial – and a thousand other emotions. But perhaps most often by keeping going, and packing up our troubles in an old kit bag. Simon of Cyrene may not be a saint, and falls short of being a hero. But he is certainly a role model: the Little Guy who aided a dying man on that first Good Friday – which looks towards the first Easter Sunday, with its empty tomb, running feet and a voice that says: “He is not here. He is risen.”