From The Way of the Cross
Jesus has come face-to-face with his mother and gone on his way.
Now his mother is following him as one of the crowd. How often she, who of all people is dear to him, has been among the crowd following him, glad even to catch a glimpse of him and to hear his voice in the distance!
He is laboring under his cross. It is too much for him to carry alone. Everyone can see that, but no one offers to help him. Someone, then, must be forced. The soldiers seize upon Simon of Cyrene. It has, or he thinks it has, nothing to do with him. He was simply about his own business in Jerusalem. It seems to him mere chance that he met this tragic procession – an unlucky chance for him, but there it is! He is made to take up the load and help this man, a stranger to him, and whom he supposes to be a criminal on the way to his execution.
Really there is no chance in the incident. It is something planned by God from eternity to show men the way of Christ’s love: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It means that no one is meant to suffer alone. No one is meant to carry his own cross without some other human being to help him.
Again Christ is proving to the world that he has come to live the life of all ordinary men on the simplest human terms. Now as he accepts the reluctant help of Simon – accept it because he perforce must, and yet in his humility gratefully – he is showing each one of us whom he will indwell, what he asks of us and what he wants us to give to one another.
A man who claims to be self-sufficient and not to need any other man’s help in hardship and suffering has no part in Christ. The price which claims to be independent of human sympathy and practical help from others is unchristian. We are here to help one another. We are here to help Christ in one another.
We are here to help Christ blindly. We must know him by faith, not by vision. We must help him not only in those who seem to be Christlike, but more in those in whom Christ is hidden: in the most unlikely people, in those whom the world condemns. It is in them that Christ, indwelling man, suffers most; it is in them he cannot carry his cross today without the help of other men.
Simon of Cyrene saw only three criminals (of whom Christ was one) on the way to die. He could not know, until he had taken up that stranger’s cross, that in it was the secret of his own salvation. Simon thought at first that Christ was no business of his. He did not even know him; he did not seem to be worth helping; his own interrupted business in Jerusalem that day seemed much more important to him. Why should he put his own business aside, why give his strength, his time, and even his suffering for this man? (He must have suffered. The hard, heavy wood would have torn and blistered his hands. Or if one end of the cross was laid on his shoulder, it would have bruised it as it bruised Christ’s. The way to Calvary must have been exhausting, and have sapped the energy he wanted for his own affairs. Again, he must have suffered mentally: the frustration of his own plans, perhaps those on which very much depended; and the humiliation of being ordered to do this thing by the hated Roman soldiers – bits of boys anyway, who found it amusing to inconvenience and make mock of a Jew!)
We must be ready to carry the burden of anyone whom we meet on our way and who clearly needs help, not only those who “deserve,” or seem to “deserve,” help. Everyone is our “business,” and Christ in everyone, potentially or actually, has a first claim on us, a claim that comes before all else.
We are here on Earth to help to carry the cross of Christ, the Christ hidden in other men, and to help in whatever way we can. We may, like Simon, have literally a strong arm to give, we may help to do hard work; we may have material goods to give; we may have time, which we desperately want for ourselves but which we must sacrifice for Christ in man. We may have only suffering. Suffering is the most precious coin of all. Suffering of body, suffering of mind, paid down willingly for Christ in man, enables him to carry his redeeming cross through the world to the end of time.
Suffering contains in itself that Simon gave: our mind and body, frustration, and identification with someone else. That last is the germ of our own salvation, that way to transform the self-pity that is the danger in all suffering into the love of other people which reaches out a hand to Christ, and saves us.
We do not look for Christ only in saints; we look for him, perceive him by faith, and try to help him, most of all in sinners. It is in sinners that Christ suffers most today, in them that his need is most urgent.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the most innocent of saints, prayed as a child for a condemned and unrepentant murderer awaiting execution. The man repented and died in the grace of God. The child Thérèse was Simon carrying Christ’s cross.
We need not – indeed must not – wait to be saints, or even to be “good,” to help Christ to carry his cross. Christ asked for help, for sympathy, in his Passion; he accepted whatever anyone would give him – anyone, not those who were already saints!
He asked the three apostles, of whom Peter was one, for sympathy in Gethsemane. He did not ask them to do anything to avert his suffering, but only to be with him in it, to share it with him through compassion: “Could you not watch one hour with me?”
They were willing but weak. They failed him then, though later when he again asked help from them, they gave it and were sanctified. Christ did not turn from them because they failed him in his hour of need. To Peter he entrusted his church, to John his mother, and James was allowed to die for him. He was grateful for the tender compassion of Mary Magdalen, the woman who was a sinner. He accepted the gift of precious ointment poured out over his feet – he accepted it with pathetic gratitude: “When she poured this ointment over my body, she did it to prepare me for my burial; and I promise you, in whatever part of the world this gospel is preached, the story of what she has done shall be told in its place, to preserve her memory,” (Matthew 26:12-13).
He accepted the unwilling help of Simon of Cyrene – the grudging help of those who are forced to serve or give against their will to those in whom they have little interest: those who today are conscripts, compelled to serve for others; or those forced, sometimes by human respect, to help tiresome friends or relations in whom they have no interest. He accepted the help of Simon, who was half-ashamed to help him, as today in the condemned and outcast and the “unworthy” he accepts the help of those who make themselves absurd in charity, those who are “exploited,” “taken in,” made “fools for Christ’s sake.”
Christ, who identified himself with sinners, who hid his beauty under the ugliness of sin, turned to sinners as much as to saints for help, both material and psychological help. Here is the extreme proof of the strong realism of his love for men.
He was grateful for the help of the thief on the cross, the generosity of this derelict dying man who acknowledged Christ’s goodness when those who knew him well had fled and others derided him. He was grateful to this broken sinner who acknowledged him with his last breath – “This day you shall be with me in paradise.”
Even when he was dead, he accepted his tomb, the place where his body should rest, from Nicodemus, the hesitating, careful man who wanted wistfully to follow him but dared only to come to him under cover of darkness.
There is no exemption from the love of Christ in one another, or from sharing the cross.
There is no moment when, if we meet one whose burden is too heavy, we may delay in helping to carry it.
It is not for those who are good alone to help Christ; it is most of all for sinners, for the weak, the hesitating; even the selfish, to force themselves to take up the cross; and in the cross of Christ, even those who seem to be lost find salvation and joy.
Every day, hidden under our sins, abject in his need, Christ says to the sinners who put out a hand or speak a word to help him: “This day you shall be with me in paradise!”
give us faith
to know you
in your direct need,
in your uttermost loneliness
bearing your heaviest load,
and unable to bear it alone,
in the most unlikely people.
In those who do not look like you,
who do not speak like you,
who perhaps do not even know you
though you are suffering in them.
Give us patience
and fortitude to put self aside
in the most unlikely people,
to know that every man’s
and any man’s suffering
is our own first business,
for which we must be willing
to go out of our way
and to leave our own interests.
most humble Savior,
the humility to forget ourselves
and even our sinfulness,
so that we may never allow
consciousness of our own unworthiness
to prevent us from helping you
in any man
whom we meet on the way
Give us the wisdom
that knows that there is no sanctity
excepting in love
and the living of love.