One of the men in that procession, beaten and scourged, couldno longer walk, and collapsed on the road. The fact that he happenedto do so in front of Simon would change Simon from anobserver to a reluctant participant, move him from sideline to centerstage. And just as our experiences alter our lives-and themore dramatic the experience, the more the dramatic the alteration-this experience may well have changed Simon's life profoundly,for in it he found a truth he did not even come toJerusalem to look for.
The Last Mile
There was no one else left to help Jesus now. Not long before theirentry into Jerusalem, his disciples had heard him say to them, "Ifany man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up hiscross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it,and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt.16:24-25). No doubt they listened to him in rapt attention, noddedtheir agreement, and looked at each other with the kind of knowingexpression that silently says, "Yes, of course, when the time comes,we will do this for him; we will take up the cross." But theirs wasthe filtered truth of the spectator. By the time that cross wasstrapped to his back, they had all left. As Matthew records later,shortly after Jesus was arrested, "all the disciples forsook him andfled" (26:56). Each one chose to save his own life, rather than risklosing it for Jesus' sake, and succumbed to what editor GeorgeAppleton called "the cowardice that dare not face new truths." Andso the task of bearing the cross fell to a complete stranger.It is easy to misinterpret the events of this last mile as a kindnesseither on the part of the Roman soldier, who relieved Jesus ofhis burden, or of Simon, who bore it. In fact, there was no benevolenceon either part.
The soldier, as was custom, needed only to make certain Jesuswould still be alive when the cross was lifted at Calvary. As a deterrentto other would-be criminals, the authorities wanted prisonersto suffer the agony-slow asphyxiation-that is peculiar to crucifixion. And because Jesus' body had been so compromised by hisbeating, this agony was not a sure thing. Weighing the risk, the soldierpointed to Simon and ordered him to help.
That Simon was compelled is important, because it implies hewould not have acted of his own accord, and I suspect this is right.To have stepped forward voluntarily would have been the firstcenturyequivalent of stopping at the scene of the car crash or racinginto the burning building; it is a rare hero who puts himself orherself in harm's way for the sake of a stranger. What Simon didwas not heroic; he had no choice.
But that doesn't mean he wasn't deeply moved by what he did,for in this too he was only human. The filter that separated his opinionfrom Jesus' reality was-if only faintly and for a short time-lifted, and he saw, no longer obliquely but starkly, what this manwas being ordered to endure. When the crosspiece was put on hisshoulders, he did not imagine the weight, he felt it. And with it hefelt the sweat and blood that had seeped from Jesus' body to warmthe wood. He felt the splinters and shards digging into his shoulders.He felt tightness in his arms and his neck as the rigidity of thewood constrained them. He felt his legs buckle and quaver. Andperhaps more than any of this, he felt the stares of the spectators,felt both their dark curiosity and their removal from what he andthe criminals were now enduring. The vast majority of that crowdwas there to witness not a tragedy over which they would laterweep, but an event they would recall at dinner that night, andSimon felt this too.
But for him it would become something else entirely. When hereached Calvary and the burden was lifted from his shoulders, hemust have been amazed at how unburdened he felt. How gratefulhe was to be a free man. He was the same man that he was whenhe awoke that morning. He had no more money and no fewercares, had not made any new friends or lost any old ones; butsomething had changed, "as a room has changed," wrote a poet,"when someone new has entered it."
The taste of death had givenhim a deepened appreciation for life, and the weight of the crossthat was taken from him had given him a deepened sense of compassionfor the one who would now be nailed to it. When in a fewmoments those crosses were hoisted, Simon saw it all through neweyes, no longer the eyes of a spectator but the eyes of a participant.He tasted the agony of the other, in small dose, and he would notforget it. Like the scrap of bread that is the body broken and the sipof wine that is the blood poured out, it was his communion, hissmall taste of the larger reality. Not enough to consume or sate him,but enough to know what one human being is enduring for the sakeof others.