The Third Station: Called to share the burden

March 2, 2010 Comments Off on The Third Station: Called to share the burden

As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.

This is an odd piece of the story.  There is no indication that Simon had any interest in participating in what would otherwise be seen as an act of compassion.  And it’s an uncomfortable act of compassion at that — helping Jesus with his burden as he is being led to an unjust punishment.  I am reminded of a scene in the film Lady Jane, about the brief reign of the young woman placed on the English throne after the death of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI, to block the accession of the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor.  Jane is sentenced to death after Mary’s forces win the war that follows Jane’s installation.  At her execution, John Feckenham, the Roman Catholic priest who failed to convert Jane to the Roman faith (the film contains several spirited discussions between Jane and this priest regarding the sacraments), is moved to reach over to assist a panicked and blindfolded Jane as she gropes for the block.  He leads her hands to it, and the axe comes down as she cries out to God.  To help someone on the way to their execution — this is not the simple and untainted compassion we like to think about, where we position ourselves outside whatever is contributing to the suffering of another. Or, ideally, we fight against the whatever is causing the suffering.

I don’t want to encourage passivity in the face of injustice, but, honestly, there are plenty of situations in this life where a simple display of compassion, of sharing the burden of another, is all we can really do.  The sight of the hungry and homeless in the streets should of course stir us to work for a more equitable society where there are fewer hungry and homeless, but sometimes we just need to give money, food, blankets, and comfort to those in pain. Jesus would have been crucified anyway.  Jane would have been beheaded regardless.  Sometimes I feel like we use intellectual arguments about justice to avoid simple acts of compassion.  There are plenty of reasons not to give money to those begging in the subways and on the streets (we are treating the symptom, we are making the problem worse, we aren’t addressing the root cause of poverty), and we can even come up with reasons not to reach out to our friends and family in distress (I don’t want to encourage my parents’ hysteria, I’ve already done my fair share, I need to teach him a lesson, what about my needs for a change?).  These can comfort us in our inaction.

We often tell ourselves that people — friends, family and strangers alike — have brought about their own misfortunes, and that is our preferred reason to stay back.  As the religion scholar Karen Armstrong puts it, we prefer being right to being compassionate.  That’s one reason why the apparent involuntary nature of Simon’s involvement here is striking.  Maybe he had no knowledge of this condemned person whose burden he was sharing.  Against his will he is swept up in the tribulations of another.  Roman soldiers were surrounding him.  This is also much like life.  We don’t choose much of our lot.  We don’t select the family from which we come.  Our lives don’t pan out exactly as we had planned.  We are entwined in a web of relationships and obligations that we can’t easily sever should we just decide to walk away.  Our finances and state of health also limit our actions.  Roman soldiers surround us.  And we are presented, again and again, with those who need us to shoulder part of their burden.  This is what we are called to do.

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  Simon ends up following this exhortation this quite literally.  In addition to our part as the vengeful, judgmental, bloodthirsty crowd, we are also given the opportunity to play the role of Simon in this moral drama.

– Eric Patton

Image: Eric Patton


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