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“The Characters of Lent: Simon of Cyrene”
Mark 15:16-21

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Lent Service IV—March 18, 2009

The Roman poet Cicero described crucifixion as “the cruelest and most hideous punishment.”  Crucifixion was used mostly in the outlying, conquered lands of the Roman Empire, like Palestine, because in those places there often were only a handful of Roman soldiers to keep control over the rebellious natives.  The Romans crucified criminals and rebels as an example and a deterrent.

As part of this deterrent effect, those sentenced to be crucified were forced to carry their own crosses through the city streets out to the place of execution, which was called Golgatha in Aramaic and Calvary in Latin, both of which mean “The Place of the Skull.”  At the front of the procession would be the Roman centurion in charge of the crucifixion detail.  Behind him would be another soldier  bearing a plaque on which was written the criminal charge, the reason why the condemned man was being crucified, as a warning to all not commit this same crime.  The victim would follow, carrying his own cross, which could weigh several hundred pounds.  The other soldiers in the crucifixion detail would follow behind the prisoner, to prevent him from escaping and whipping him if he slowed or stopped. 

A long, winding route would be taken through the city, so that as many people as possible would witness the spectacle.  Today, the route that tradition says Christ took carrying his cross is called the “Via Dolorosa,” which is Latin for “The Way of Sorrows.”  Every Friday, thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world walk the Via Dolorosa, commemorating Christ’s journey out to Calvary.  And on Good Friday, tens of thousands of pilgrims form a huge procession along The Way of Sorrows.  One of the most memorable experiences of my life was walking the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday in 1980, and I bought this stole I use for Lent in a little shop on the Via Dolorosa.

On the first Good Friday morning three groups paraded out three men through the streets of Jerusalem.  Two of the men were common criminals, thieves and robbers.  But, the notice carried before one man bore a very strange inscription for a crucifixion victim: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  Although Pontius Pilate knew it was not true, that was the technical, legal reason why Jesus was crucified, supposedly because he claimed to be a king in opposition to Caesar, which was a treasonable offensive under Roman law, punishable by death.

On the way to Golgatha, Jesus was so weakened by all the punishments he had already endured that he simply could no longer carry his cross no matter how much the soldiers whipped him.  So, the soldiers grabbed at random from the crowd Simon of Cyrene and forced him to carry Jesus’ cross.  Roman soldiers had the authority to temporarily impress non-Romans into their service.  A Roman solider could require any non-Roman to carry his pack or other burden for one mile.  That’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

We don’t know much about Simon of Cyrene.  Cyrene was a city in northern Africa, modern-day Libya. Simon was probably a Hebrew, in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.  Mark adds that he was the “father of Alexander and Rufus,” which probably means that after this memorable encounter with Jesus, Simon became a Christian, and at the time Mark wrote his Gospel, Alexander and Rufus were well known in the Christian community as the sons of the man who carried Jesus’ cross.

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  Simon of Cyrene literally took up the cross for Jesus.  Like Simon of Cyrene, take up the cross.  Take up the cross, by trusting in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for your salvation.  And take up the cross, by patiently enduring all the crosses of this life for his sake.  Just as Simon of Cyrene was there to help Jesus bear his cross, Jesus is with you, daily, to help you bear your cross for him.

That is the lesson of the Lenten story of Simon of Cyrene.  Amen.

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