Picture This #2
Good Friday is a week from tomorrow. I still don't understand why they call it 'good.' Sunday is good. Friday not so much. Anyway, these are a few of my thoughts heading into this week.
Imagine you're standing outside the wall of Jerusalem. Where they dump the refuse. Where the lepers congregate. Where, ever since Moses, they've burned the sacrifice. Over your shoulder, and up a small hill, is where they execute the guilty. This stone path you're standing on is the final stretch. It's Friday. 9 am. Today is the day they were supposed to crucify a murderer named Barabas but there was a switch at the last moment. The replacement is walking toward you. He is a blasphemer named ‘Jesus.’
He is stumbling his way out of the City of David. In the last 24 hours, his beard has been plucked out. Angry men have struck him in the face with their fists so his eyes and lips are swollen and split. His head is ringed in a vine protruding with three-inch thorns. After they slid it on his head, they beat him with rods, shoving the thorns down into his skull. This morning, he was whipped by that Roman soldier there holding that scourge. The glass and metal tips on the end removed most the flesh across Jesus' back, neck and face. Six hundred years ago, a prophet named Isaiah had said that Jesus would be ‘unrecognizable as a man’ – this right here is the moment he was talking about. Jesus’ blood pressure is dangerously low. He’s bleeding out. Naked. Totally. Behind him, a rag-tag crowd follows at a distance. His mother is inconsolable.
The cross is heavy and He is weakening by the moment. Jesus is stumbling every few feet, crawling, dragging the tree and the soldiers are looking at the sun knowing that this process can take awhile and they’ve got families and duties, and that He’s got a way to go yet. They're thinking, Come on just die already. Jesus rises, takes a step and falls again. The weight of the tree presses down on his back and chest, and slams his head onto the street. He lies bleeding on the stones which only a week before would have ‘cried out’ had his triumphal entry been silent -- when all of Jerusalem wanted to make him King. Wanting to speed things up, the soldiers scan the crowd. Tap a stranger on the shoulder – a curious man minding his own business. “You! Carry that.”...
Simon is from Cyrene. Libya. North Africa. In my mind, Simon is a black man but I’ve heard pretty good arguments as to why he was a Jew. Mark's gospel says 'they [the soldiers] compelled him." Luke says, "They laid hold of a certain man...and on him they laid the cross." I don't think they gave him much choice. Whatever the case, he is the last person recorded in scripture to have touched Jesus who was not trying to kill him.
Whenever I read about Simon, I wonder – what if Simon didn’t want to get his clothes dirty? Bad back? Arthritis? What if he didn't care for Jesus and His dribble about ‘repentance’ and some nonsense about some kingdom?
Chances are good that Simon knew the scripture ‘cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’ Everyone knew that. It’s why they were hanging him on it. What about those who help them carry it? Tainted by association.
We don’t know a lot about him. All we know is that – unlike every other onlooker -- he leaned in, gathered his footing and began dragging the tree up that hill while Jesus limped and dragged himself alongside. Pause a minute and study that picture. Jesus is following Simon who is carrying the cross on which those soldiers are about to execute Him.
Think ‘lamb led to the slaughter.’ Does that picture strike you at all? Knock anything loose?
It rips me to shreds.
Scripture doesn’t say how far but in my mind Simon carries the cross long enough to get splinters in his hands, for the sweat to pour from his brow, to stumble once or twice and cut his knee on the rocks, to feel his legs tremble and shake and to take notice of the man for whom he’s carrying it. I’d like to know what happened during that time? What was Simon thinking? Did he speak to Jesus? When Jesus stumbled, did Simon, for one brief second in time, carry both Jesus and that cross? Certainly, he had to look at this bloody shell of a man and wonder what had brought Him to that moment.
Then there’s the more important question -- did Jesus speak to Simon? My guess is that He did. Only Simon knows the truth. If he recorded that conversation, I know of no record of it.
Then they reach the top – Simon holds the cross in one hand, Jesus in the other. This is Golgotha. Calvary. The place of the skull. Where men die. The dirt is stained. Puddled. The soldiers shove Simon out of the way. Simon stands to the side and watches as they throw down the tree, drive in the nails and drop the tree in the hole. Hurry. Let’s get this done. I’ve got dinner reservations. Drinks with the guys. Poker game. Girlfriend’s coming over… Only then does Simon realize that the blood on his shoulders, and caked on his cheek, and matted to his hair, is not his blood.
In my mind, Simon stayed until the end. He moved around front where he read the words inscribed above Jesus' head. Overhear the conversation with the thief. Hear Jesus speak to his mother. Shake his head as the soldiers gamble for the dying man's clothes. At noon, when darkness fell on the earth, Simon heard Jesus cry out, Father, forgive them. Three hours later, he heard Jesus' friends whisper among themselves: He's been up there six hours! How much more can he take? Then, he saw the look on Jesus' face when His Father forsook Him. Finally, he heard Him say, It is finished and witnessed His last breath. Heard the exhale. Saw the body fall limp, hanging by the nails. Saw the spear pierce the side. Saw the blood and water flow. It was then that he realized that Jesus had been drowning the last couple of hours as he hung which explained the labored breathing -- the gurgle. Then, turning to leave, he heard the soldier lament, Surely, this was the Son of God.
Jesus knit Simon together before He laid the foundations of the earth. That means He knew that He would be seeing him on that path up the hill. I’d like to know what He said.
A while back, I got to thinking on this and, while not audible, my mind heard this – Charles?
Pregnant pause. I still whisper.
Just step under that. Grab hold of this…
It’s a daily thing, mostly uphill, I have to lean into it, it's sort of slippery sometimes and I’m not very good at it, but I wouldn’t trade our conversations. I’m proof -- two thousand years later and He still whispers to Simon.
Maybe the question is not What did He say to Simon? But rather, What would he have to say to you to get you to carry it? We want the one-on-one, the intimate conversations, before we agree to carry the thing, but I don’t think it works that way. I think He whispers after you’ve lowered your shoulder. Not before.
I can't read this story without finding myself in the crowd. What if the soldiers had tapped me. I mean, really. What if they pointed a sword in my face and said, You! Would I have tucked tail and run? Lost myself in the crowd. Or, would I have stammered…Just had my clothes laundered. My friends wouldn’t understand. It’s not the image I’m trying to project. Bad back. Arthritis. A lot of diseases in blood these days. I’m late for an…
Or, would I have just shut up and shouldered the tree.
There outside the wall, Jesus could have summoned legions of angels to his rescue. But, ‘while we were still sinners,’ He didn't. Jesus alone took what was mine. Yours. The decree written against us – which was and is true and proves our guilt – He nailed to that tree and then made a public spectacle of the author. Triumphing over him. A complete and total and irrevocable defeat. Rendering those of us who confess with our mouth and believe with our heart completely and totally forgiven. Alive in Him.
It seems a small thing to carry that tree.
I don’t know if Jesus looked at Simon and said, Thank you. Or, You don’t have to do that. I tend to think he said something like, Simon, in a few minutes you’re heart is going to break but I want you to know, before it does, that I love you. That I can't thank you enough. That what you’re about to witness is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning. This is page one. Don't cry. I’ll be back. And when I return, I will have defeated everything you see or fear. Nothing will by any means harm you. I’ll bring with me the keys to death and hades. And, I’ll be shining like the sun.
In truth, I don’t know what the King of Glory, the Ancient of Days, the Firstborn From Among the Dead, the Ruler of the Kings of the earth, the Bright Morning Star, the Lion of Judah, the Faithful Witness, My Jesus, said to Simon the Cyrene. I just know that when presented with the cross, Simon lowered his shoulder, and trudged uphill.
Simon was the first one of us.
If Simon were here -- what do you think he'd say? How would he instruct us as newby-cross-carriers? My guess is this:
What's that? No, there’s no trick to it. Just step in under that. Put your shoulder here. Hold this part here and grab that. Then step there. Careful, that part’s slippery – it’s the blood. Yeah, it’s sort of bulky. My knees are pretty cut up, too. That happens sometimes. Some sharp rocks here. You should see some of the veterans who've carried this thing -- they've got camel knees. But, you’ll get there. Watch out for those splinters – they’re tough to get out. No, that one’s not a splinter. It’s a thorn. Probably broke off. Yeah, the crowd’s angry. They’re just ready for Him to die already. There…you’re getting the hang of it. Doing great. Just keep walking. One foot in front of the other. What’s that you say? Where is He? Oh, He’s close. He’s never far from the stranger in the crowd who carries His cross.