March 16, 2017 Comments Off on Fifth Station: Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus Carry the Cross
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” These famous words from Matthew 16:24-25 have become a kind of summary in the gospel. Jesus utters them in the gospel of John to a wide audience of followers, before the reality of Jesus’ own crucifixion has become clear to them.
It seems natural to think of this verse in connection to the fifth station of the cross: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross. Yet there a few important differences. First, this is not a matter of everyone taking up the cross; the burden in this scene is Simon’s to carry alone. Second, Simon is not carrying his own cross. He is carrying the cross of Jesus, which begs the question of whether Simon agreed to do this in the first place. Was this an act of charity? Of compulsion? The narratives in the synoptic gospels don’t give us these specifics.
There is a huge difference between taking up your own cross and taking on the cross of another. This is a central concern in the work of womanist theologian Delores Williams. In her book Sisters in the Wilderness, Williams highlights the dangerous implications embedded in our beliefs about the crucifixion of Jesus. If Jesus’ salvation operates through his suffering on the cross, what does that say about suffering? Do we run the risk of glorifying suffering when we celebrate the death of Jesus? And most importantly, what does this mean when certain people are made to bear sufferings in society more than others? For Williams, the weight of this burden falls most heavily on women of color, the perpetual surrogate mothers of American history.
Lent is a time when many Christians respond to Jesus’ exhortation to “take up your cross and follow me” with embodied action—giving up a beloved food, or taking on a practice that may seem initially like a burden. As we take on these extra burdens, I hope that we will remember those people who are carrying a heavy load this season, and not by choice. I hope we will remember the mother who stays late at work to pay for her apartment in a neighborhood where rents are steadily rising. I hope we will remember the refugees who have “given up” their homes because of the threat of violence.
For Delores Williams, the most important thing about Jesus’ life was not his death and suffering—it was his life. The same thing ought to be true for all of us as we take up our crosses during this season of Lent. Too often we fixate on stage of losing our lives and forget that the purpose of the cross is to find life. May we look for life this season, not only for ourselves but also for everyone who is carrying a heavy burden.
– Heidi Thorsen Oxford
February 26, 2016 Comments Off on Fifth Station: The Cross Is Laid on Simon of Cyrene
Artists: Jacqui Taylor Basker and Ihsan Bandak
“They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. (Mark 15:21)”
Who was Simon of Cyrene and why was he chosen to help carry Jesus’ cross? The brevity of Mark’s account seems to ask more questions than answer, even as this story is well worn in our memories of Jesus’ Passion narrative. Some commentators have suggested that because Cyrene was located in Northern Africa that Simon might have been black, and hence conspicuous in the crowd. Others have suggested that Simon might have been a slave and pressed into service of the Romans because he was a slave. Others merely just see Simon as someone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever the case is, it is clear that Mark makes a point that Simon is other, a foreigner from the crowd and that this foreigner has no choice in helping Jesus carry his cross.
From the perspective of those hearing Mark’s account, commentaries have suggested that Rufus and Alexander were mentioned because they were leaders in the Christian community of Mark’s time and that this story which appears in three of the Gospels was part of oral history. Certainly recording the eyewitnesses of Jesus death would be compelling enough to pass down. However, I wonder if there was not a certain irony for those who passed down the story that made it additionally compelling to tell. Simon, who was not at all part of the crowd watching Jesus on his way to die, was asked to carry the cross that would eventually become redemptive for Simon and all of us by Jesus’s death. If one did not know the end of the story, one might simply see this as a story about state sponsored violence that pressed Simon into service. Yet, knowing the end, it becomes a narrative of carrying someone else’s death in order that we all might live.
In my own life I feel sometimes that I am carrying on the burdens of others which I did not choose and seemed to have chosen me instead. It can feel oppressive, lonely, and even unfair — why me? When I think about Simon, I could very well imagine that if it were me, not knowing the end of the Jesus story that I would have been asking, “Where are you, God?” Of course, God was fully present, full with love for and with Simon even as he was carrying what would be ultimately redemptive.
St. Bonaventure often wrote about about God’s love bent low for us and how the cross is part of that humility of God. Ilio Delio summarizes this well:
What Bonaventure (like Francis) realized in the mystery of the Incarnation is that God bends over in love to meet us where we are…The humility of God means that God’s love is so abundant that God is willing to plunge into the darkness of humanity to bring us into the fullness of life. That is why God’s humility is expressed most vividly in the cross because God could not bend over any further in love for us than in the suffering and death of the cross.
Ilia Delio, The Humility of God: A Franciscan Perspective, (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 52-53.
Coming from this perspective, Simon was able to become an unexpected partner in God’s love for us. God’s humility was such that Simon was part of carrying this love, even as it might have seemed humiliating to Simon to be forced into cooperating with the state that would eventually kill Jesus. It’s worth noting that none of Jesus’ disciples were part of carrying this love burden, and yet someone who from another place, not part of Jesus’ followers, someone who just passing by was able to cooperate with this love.
How do we carry the burdens of others’ given to us and in what ways is God with us in love bent low? I think Mary Oliver’s Heavy can give us some insight about how it’s all in the way we carry that “love which has no reply.”
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
I went closer,
and I did not die.
had His hand in this,
as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poets said,
was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry
but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?
Have you heard
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?
How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
to which there is no reply?
– Nicole Hanley
March 19, 2015 § 1 Comment
I wanted to spend some time tonight with this moment in Christ’s Passion. There’s an apprehensiveness and vulnerability that I wanted to understand better.
The stripping of garments has across cultures and time periods been used as a way to further humiliate a person who had been publicly shamed. At this moment in particular, as Simon has painted it, this terrible looming shadow of shame, ridicule, and humiliation is actually in movement toward Christ, where it aims to lodge and take up residence in the very center of his being. This is the moment right as it is entering him, it seems to me. In a way, Simon’s imagining here reminds me of a .gif file. A moving image, enacting a loop of narrative movement in increments of a few seconds. The face of Christ here includes the moment before, the moment of and the moment after the toxic intrusion of shame.
But enter him it must, because the fully human Christ is the Christ who has experienced every human emotion, every human pain, every human shame. But I think that, once it penetrates, but not before, he will also transform it–and here also Simon has given us a glint or glimmer of that possible future.
The entry under “shame” in the Oxford English Dictionary includes this: “The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances . . .” The Italian philosopher Agamben offers the following: “What appears in shame is therefore precisely the fact of being chained to oneself, the radical impossibility of fleeing oneself to hide oneself from oneself, the intolerable presence of the self to itself. . . What shame discovers is the Being that discovers itself.”
I want to expand that a little, or add some dimension to it. In discovering the Being that discovers itself, it seems that shame as well discovers the Being that needs. We are ashamed of our weakness, our imperfections, all the ways that we are smaller than we want to be. But this somehow originary experience of shame turns out might also be an occasion for our apprehension of God. It is through our need that we recognize and make ourselves available to God’s coming into our hearts.
Imagine that God is present there with the being who is present to itself—imagine that God sees and holds that being, in its nakedness and smallness, plenitude and excess, in its supreme solitude. Imagine that God is that being who holds its plenitude and its lack, who witnesses its solitude. God as the One whose very presence transforms shame into relationship.
Even in the abject moment of being shamed, if we can conceive of the experience in this way, perhaps a strange and perfect intimacy arises. Let us remember, that if Christ underwent such horrific shaming, Christ is also our witness. Seeing Christ like this shows me that, as crippling as it can feel, it is exactly to such moments of bareness and weakness and need—in the desert of our being—that the presence of God rushes.
– Atticus Zavaletta
April 3, 2014 Comments Off on The Fifth Station: Jesus Is Stripped of His Clothes
Our flesh is soft, vulnerable. We clothe ourselves not just to adorn or beautify but in order to protect our flesh from cold and heat, from bugs and burrs, from the gaze of others. In clothing, we can tell ourselves that we are still protected, still accorded some dignity in this world. Clothing is one of our first and last possessions.
Before he is crucified, Jesus, like other criminals being taken for crucifixion, is stripped of this last of human trappings, this last protection, this last security. He is completely vulnerable to everything that comes at him, open to the instruments of his torture and execution as well as to the scorn and indifference of those who surround him.
Imagining him standing there naked, bleeding from the wounds of his lashing and the crown of thorns, weary unto death, gives a new and terrible dimension to the words Paul will later write that are of such comfort to me and many others: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Not even his clothing. That availability, that closeness to every human heart and all who suffer is won at a great cost.
– The Rev. Gabriel Lamazares
March 15, 2012 Comments Off on The Fifth Station: Jesus Is Stripped of His Clothes
At the climax of Julie Delpy’s Two Days in Paris Jack (Adam Goldberg) strips naked before his girlfriend, Marion (Julie Delpy) as they confront one another about the status of their relationship. He drops his pants, and everything else, in an aggressive manner denoting that he wanted Marion to really know who he was. While nakedness was familiar to Marion and Jack’s relationship, Jack used nakedness, in this instance, to remove any barriers that prevented Marion from perceiving Jack as he really was.
Like Adam and Eve, feeling shame toward our naked bodies is a learned posture. Watch any screaming naked newborn baby as it enters our world, and it is clear that being naked is the least of the baby’s concerns. Yet somehow we, as babies, children, teenagers, and adults, learn to invest great time, thought, and money into how we cover our nakedness. This is especially true for those living in New York City. Even so, it is worth considering how our routine concern for covering impacts our relationship with God and with others. Perhaps it is no mistake that Jesus was naked on his painful journey to his ultimate confrontation with God and the people who persecuted him. Perhaps it was the only way for him to be fully present on the journey of ultimate sacrifice and for his humanity to be truly perceived both by those who loved and hated him.
Humiliation and pain make hiding highly desirable. In those moments we want to run to the nearest dark space, cover our heads with a blanket, and just disappear from everyone and from God. A challenge in the fifth station of the cross is to become truly present, truly vulnerable, and truly naked in our confrontations with God and with others when we’re experiencing humiliation, pain, and the inclination to run far far away. Such metaphorical nudity might mean exchanging our masks of superficial pleasantries with bare honest conversations. It might also mean being naked, literally, before God and/or before others we trust. Because it is especially in that moment that we can no longer hide our condition of being utterly human.
– Michelle R. Jackson
Michelle is Assistant Program Director, Stewardship Services at the Episcopal Church Foundation.
April 7, 2011 § 2 Comments
I was given a copy of the Robert Crumb illustrated Genesis for my birthday, and, among the many striking and interesting things in the first book of the Bible, it is noteworthy that Adam and Eve immediately manufacture clothing once their eyes are opened and they acquire — like God — knowledge of good and evil.
Different cultures have different ideas about acceptable clothing (the woman’s niqab of Arabia and the almost complete nakedness of several Amazonian peoples are two extreme examples), but being stripped of appropriate clothing is pretty much a universally humiliating gesture. It was used in this manner not too long ago by members of the US military at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
I recently saw the historically inaccurate but gripping film Agora, about the life and death of the pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria. The film is gratuitously and simplistically anti-Christian, but it is true that Hypatia was killed by a Christian mob (just not for the reasons shown in the film, where the moronic and bloodthirsty Christians kill her for being a woman and a scientist and a remarkably prescient astronomer). The most upsetting scene in the film for me (and it is a film full of upsetting scenes) is when Hypatia is stripped of her clothes before her execution by the paramilitary Parabolani brotherhood. “Get up, that’s it, so that God can behold you in all your filth, whore,” says Peter, the brother who plotted the killing.
Witnessing this martyrdom of a noble pagan woman, it was hard not to be reminded of the Passion story. Of course, it is much more shocking to see a beautiful, dignified, and chaste woman stripped of her clothes than it is to arrive at this Station of the Cross: we are all quite used to nearly naked depictions of Jesus. (And we know that His story ends on an infinitely more glorious note.)
Stripped, we are humiliated. We are defenseless. We are shamed (even though, owing to the Incarnation, Christianity probably has the most positive view of the human body of all the Abrahamic religions, plus Buddhism). We are brought back to our prelapsarian physical condition, but without the corresponding return to innocence. We know what is going on. We are beheld, honestly, in all our filth.
It is not a typical human experience to be stripped and humiliated by a band of malicious attackers (although, sadly, it does happen), but nearly all of us will, at one time, feel this same sense of helplessness and loss of dignity, even if it is just in front of a group of doctors, nurses, and caregivers. We will have nothing to hide behind. We can never hide anything from God, but we will be reminded how vulnerable we truly are, and how our clothing will ultimately not protect us as we lie in a hospital with no one but God to appeal to. Our sense of safety and dignity and self-assurance is only temporary — maybe only illusory if it is not derived from God.
The Jewish culture was more modest than the Greco-Roman one, so the experience was even more terrible for Jesus and his disciples than the Romans intended. Jesus was first mockingly arrayed as a king and then ended up naked on the cross. Jesus in His humanity was brought low and returned to the naked state in which we entered and enter the world.
But we don’t go along the Way of the Cross without knowledge of our redemption, so the fact that Jesus was with us in vulnerability and shame should make our understanding of His glorification that much more complete. God was with us, and God will be with us, even when — especially when — we are fully exposed and humbled.
– Eric Patton
March 16, 2010 Comments Off on The Fifth Station: Laying Aside Vanity, Walking Humbly
I have a particular fascination with the study of Christology and what Jesus knew about his divine nature and when he discovered it. Annually I pour through books like Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord Series and Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ to supplement my reflections on the Gospel readings to try and further understand the humanity of my Christ.
It would be silly (bordering on profane) to compare Jesus’ journey to the cross with anything I’ve even remotely experienced in the way of anticipating some dreaded appointment, like going to the dentist or having to watch each of my parents pass through this vale of tears. How long has Jesus known every single thing which is about to happen to him and what about the agony he must be suffering anticipating these eventualities every single step of the way! Then, to make matters worse, here comes the beginning of the end which starts with an absolute humiliation: he is to be stripped bare, not only in front of a crowd of people watching, but in front of his friends and his own mother. He will hang for the next three hours completely naked in front of each of them and not only have to allow himself to die but also keep in check the power he has to call down angels to aid him or ask the earth to open and swallow those who have harmed him. Instead he thinks of them gently and kindly, instead he forgives them and he asks forgiveness for them, not God’s wrath. (I know how upset I get when someone cuts in front of me in a line somewhere so I know what I would have done.)
Jesus is about to offer himself completely to God. Jesus is about to become the literal sacrificial animal in propitiation for our sins so that you, so that I, can live a life free from the bondage of The Law, free to experience God’s boundless love and free to be reconciled back to our filial relationship with the creator and sustainer of the universe. I believe one of the things this station in The Way of the Cross teaches us is that we must make ourselves bare, even unto humiliation, in order to offer the perfect sacrifice of ourselves to God. Not just a cutesy head bob hello in the aisle but a profound genuflection before seating ourselves in the comfort of God’s presence. We must be willing to lay aside every vanity, every self-deceit and say, “moles and all, in the high noon, the brightest illumination of the day, here I am God, and I know you love me now more than ever for making myself available to you. ‘Not my will, God, but yours be done.’” I’ll tell you … I’m so often afraid to do this myself for fear of what God’s going to ask of me in return and I sometimes just don’t know if I have it in me to say “you can count on me”. But I hope to always say, “Just like moons and like suns / With the certainty of tides / Just like hopes springing high / Still I’ll rise” because “God has told [us] what is good, and this is what God requires of [us]: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [our] God.”