As the Lenten season comes to a close and we bear witness to the crucifixion, I can’t help but think of those closest to Jesus at his time of death. In the in-between moments, when it seemed death had won, what dismal hope must have been left. I wonder if Jesus’ words rang in their ears: if you are my disciple, you will surely also have a cross to bear. This is terrible news. The life promised by the miracle-healing God-with-us Messiah will hold suffering. To be of God is to be among the suffering—not because it is destined or must happen, but because it simply will. To be a prophet, to call for God’s justice, to liberate the captive, to protect the vulnerable—these are not the ways of the world but the ways of God. They won’t get you earthly rewards. They’ll risk you getting cornered by mobs, becoming the center of religious jealousy, or being harmed as the object of state-sanctioned violence. Jesus is calling the disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God, which means walking the path of suffering. Faithful discipleship is the way of the cross.
And this tracks with Luke, the Gospel that emphasizes Jesus’ passion over his resurrection. Luke situates salvation within the humiliation of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. This Gospel emphasizes taking up your cross daily. And tradition exalts a man from Scripture named Simon of Cyrene as an exemplar of this cross-bearing discipleship.
Simon was one of the many bystanders on the busy streets of Jerusalem. A guard picked Simon out of the crowd to help carry Jesus’ cross up to Golgotha where Jesus would be crucified. There’s not a lot known about who Simon was. We know he was from an African country because he was called the Cyrene. We know he probably wasn’t a Roman citizen because Romans weren’t usually referred to by places they were from. We also know that the Gospel writers wrote about Simon in a way that assumed the audience would know who he was, that he was a man who needed no explanation. This was a person who, at some point, became recognizable to the early church.
But other than that, we really don’t know much. It’s very possible he was an ordinary person on an ordinary road watching a seemingly ordinary execution. Some scholars think he was sympathetic to Jesus; others think he may have been a reluctant bystander, another foreigner selected to carry a death-row torture and execution tool.
Far more important than his demographics, I can’t shake what Simon must have been feeling. Jesus, probably staggering on the cobblestone road in Jerusalem, is faltering under the weight of the cross. I think it’s fair for us to imagine for a moment that Simon felt sympathy for Jesus. Simon couldn’t take away Jesus’ suffering. Imagine the eye contact he made with Jesus, how he felt as he picked up the cross beam and bore it through the winding streets. Imagine his devastation when he had to put the cross down. I wonder if he handed it to the Roman soldiers or laid it next to the nails and hammer. I imagine Simon moved slowly.
I imagine he stepped heavy in hopes that somehow prolonging the path to Golgotha may delay the death of Jesus long enough for the angels to intervene, for God to step in, for the divine to finally show up. God, where are you? O God, will you also forsake this one? What kind of a Gospel is this? Where is the Good News?
I think Simon of Cyrene probably was like any one of us with his fair share of hardships, any one of us who felt the sting of injustice and death. I imagine he was human. So I imagine he took Jesus’ cross and hoped for a miracle, assuming it wouldn’t come.
And maybe, in some ways, that’s salvific. Maybe there’s something about walking with someone to the cross, knowing this is, in some sense, inevitable, and choosing to walk beside them anyway. There’s power in bearing one another’s cross. There’s power in lifting up that which is meant to slaughter someone and carrying it to make their load a little bit easier. There’s power in looking death in the face on behalf of someone else, in linking arms with another in their suffering because no one walks alone.
There’s something shockingly beautiful and sanctifying about this, that even God incarnate did not suffer alone. That Jesus did not bear his cross alone. I have two queer friends who faced medical challenges right after they had their first baby. When the mother who gave birth was hospitalized for the second week of the baby’s life, her wife had to navigate caring for her newborn son with no familial support nearby in a city that still felt new. People offered money and a meal train, but that’s not what she really needed—she needed someone to love her baby so that she could sleep, someone to rock him while she went to the grocery store. Their queer community group showed up. These people, some of whom she had never met, chose to make her nightmare their call to action. They chose to suffer alongside her, lose sleep with her, and help her as much as they could all in the name of a radical, cross-bearing kind of friendship.
Paul talks a lot about bearing one another’s burdens like this. This is the beauty of the church. We are with one another in solidarity, in the thick of it. Just as God is there for us, just as Simon was there for Jesus, just as Jesus is there for us, so are we there for one another. We all have our crosses to bear, but we don’t need to bear them alone.
And yes we know we can’t undo injustice. We can’t wish away anti-LGBTQIA+ hate, and we can’t snap our fingers and make all the anti-trans bills disappear from state legislatures. But we do know that it matters when we show up for one another anyway.
Simon was caught in the middle of events, compelled with little to no choice to carry a cross—and in doing so, he made Jesus’ load a little bit easier. We can’t always take someone’s suffering away. But when you reorient yourself to the cross, you find yourself carrying someone else’s burden, however long you can, even if for just a little while.
It’s about meeting another person as they are and bearing the cross alongside them. Struggling in solidarity with them. Being with them and near them in their struggle, stepping when they step, stopping when they do, until you get to the bitter end. And then you hand their cross back and bear witness. Theologian James Cone teaches that salvation is when we become so deeply in solidarity with the most oppressed person that we are, in essence, the same.
Simon of Cyrene did this. He did not bear the ultimate punishment of Christ, but on that long walk up to Golgotha, he and Christ were one in suffering, in solidarity.
God suffers alongside us like this. And because God does this for us, we too can do that for one another. We are all called to bear a cross, to be bound up in one another’s suffering. No one, not me, not you, not even Jesus Christ, walks alone.
By doing the work as disciples of Christ, we will all have crosses to bear. But remember that Simon of Cyrene walked with Christ as long as he could. Remember that we are called to bear one another’s burdens, to walk as long as we can alongside each other. Pray without ceasing, stack hope upon hope, and believe in miracles. And remember that there is something salvific and holy about bearing the sufferings of another simply to take the load off for a while. May the LGBTQIA+ community continue carrying the legacy of showing up for one another in mighty ways, carrying crosses for one another—not knowing what the end will be and doing it anyway. God is with all of us, especially in all of our sufferings.
Abby was born and raised in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, where she fell in love with Southern food and the outdoors. She is currently an elder candidate in the United Methodist Church and second-year Master of Divinity student at Garrett Seminary. Thus far, she has discerned that her call is to be a community and bridge builder, particularly in spaces of tension.