During the final earthly hours of Christ, while being savagely forced by Roman soldiers to carry his own cross to Golgotha (a.k.a., Calvary), a man was plucked from a crowd of jeering bystanders to help a weary and tormented Jesus. While this brief encounter is well documented throughout history, from the Bible to modern day film and theatre, little is known about this mysterious individual chosen to ease this particular burden of Christ.
Why this man? Did he stand out in some way? Was he Jewish, Greek or Roman? Dark skinned, light-skinned or olive complexion? Or, does it even matter?
It mattered to an African-American poet, of the Harlem Renaissance Era, named Countee Cullen (1903-1946, from Louisville, Kentucky, by most accounts). In his poem, “Simon of Cyrene Speaks,” he explored the possibility that the man pulled from the swarming flock of tormenters was black. It also matters to me.
The episodic experiences of Jesus Christ’s last days on earth are sacred- yet, profane and profound. The entire period is sacred, between “Passion Sunday” (a.k.a., “Palm Sunday) and “Easter Sunday,” in my opinion. It is chock-full of profane examples of man’s inhumanity to man, following this meek and mostly mild-mannered, son-of-a-carpenter’s celebratory entrance to Jerusalem- perched on a lowly donkey. But, the profound events immediately prior, and directly following, the Crucifixion still boggle the mind of many decent thinking humans, today. Cullen merely speculated about a brief moment, in the midst of the heckling throngs.
Others speculated, as well. This theory about Christ’s fleeting encounter with a black man is still interesting wonderment. But, the footnotes of history fail to satisfy its mystery. Research data is contradictory, and often controversial. And, this particular commentary promises not to quell any arguments. Yet, it’s a question for the ages, still begging for an answer.
Rather than further flaming the embers of controversy, this brief excursion simply represents another point of view, among the legions of changing viewpoints, zigzagging down the slopes of time, religious or secular- sacred or profane. Regardless of who helped bear the cross of Christ, it’s likely that his own salvation was quickened by this 11th-hour intervention in Jesus’ suffering.
Simply put, evidentiary findings for the existence of persons of African descent within the Bible do not prove that “Simon of Cyrene,” who helped Jesus bear His cross to Golgotha, was not black or of the dark-skinned peoples of Africa. Instead, my research reveals that this particular “Simon” made a Passover pilgrimage, 500 miles or more, to Jerusalem from Cyrene, ending during Jesus’ humiliating climb to Golgotha.
This is supported by all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) which mention that this particular “Simon” was the one made to carry our Savior’s cross. At that time, Cyrene was a city in the Greek province of Cyrenaica, in North Africa- today’s northern Libya- where many blacks lived. It was during the time that Greeks considered all of Africa as “Greater Ethiopia.” This much is certain. It’s also consistent with my observations while stationed in the Mediterranean.
In this country, other views include the torturous Crucifixion-to-Resurrection movie, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), where “Simon” is depicted as Jewish, played by Jarreth Merz. In “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), an epic about Jesus Christ, from the Nativity through the Resurrection, “Simon” is played by the great African-American actor, Sidney Poitier. These histrionic expressions represent additional points of view, by mere mortals, within the kaleidoscope of time.
Yet, both views were considered “facts,” as supported by historical evidence or other logical conclusions, as filtered through the lens of various honorable observers.
Similarly, Cullen’s rhythmic creative interpretation, in the shadows of the Synoptic Gospels, further highlights this factually significant moment, a brief mental link between “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Simon of Cyrene,” on the way to Golgotha, where Jesus died.
If you close your eyes, you might even smell the approaching rains and see the dark storm clouds brewing. Early in the morning, before a frenzied Passover Festival crowd, Pontius Pilate is setting free the rebellious bandit, Barabbas. Then, he hands Jesus over to a cruel and vicious group of seasoned Roman soldiers for more extreme punishment, including vicious floggings and, eventually, his unusually painful death.
Most Christians know what happened next. It’s not pretty. In fact, it’s ugly:
They dragged Jesus, nearly nude, out into the streets. Soldiers mocked him and beat him mercilessly. They put a purple robe of “royalty” on him. They ceremoniously placed a wreath of thorny branches on his head. Punctuating his prickly crown, they saluted him. Then, they spat on him. These warriors repeatedly called him “The King of the Jews.” Yet, they spit on him and whipped him, again. He suffered even more cruelty and ridicule as he slowly made his way to the place called “Golgotha,” translated, meaning “The Place of the Skull.”
Close your eyes again and you might get a whiff of the foul-smelling wine they tried to make him drink. The stench forces you to turn away.
Then, they nailed his bare hands and naked feet to the cross, slamming through skin, bone and wood with spikes. Razor-sharp spears-of-war poked and sliced his battered flesh. Soldiers threw dice for the skimpy clothes he wore. Next, to see if he was worthy of their “believing” in his powers, they ordered this humbled religious teacher to climb down from the cross- to save himself!
But, his mission was not over…
At noon, the whole country was engulfed with a frightful darkness. Three hours later, just before he died, with his mother looking on, Christ cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Translated, it means, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me? It was only then that a nearby army officer blurted out, “…This man was really the Son of God!”
If hearing this, can you imagine how “Simon of Cyrene” must have felt? Cullen did. He used his poem as a canvass to sketch “Simon’s” reflections of his earlier encounter with the “Son of God,” on his way to Golgotha.
Listen, as “Simon” finally spoke: (From “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks,” by Countee Cullen)
He never spoke a word to me,
And yet He called my name;
He never gave a sign to me,
And yet I knew and came.
At first I said, “I will not bear
His cross upon my back;
He only seeks to place it there
Because my skin is black.”
But He was dying for a dream,
And He was very meek,
And in His eyes there shone a gleam
Men journey far to seek.
It was Himself my pity bought;
I did for Christ alone
What all of Rome could not have wrought
With bruise of lash or stone.
“Simon of Cyrene” disappears from the scriptures, as mysteriously as he entered. But, Jesus was a marked man, from the time he entered Jerusalem on “Passion Sunday,” amid the deceiving shouts of “Hosanna.” He was marked for death by mere Roman mortals.
Yet, he was marked by God for eternal life, after he died, for the sins of all mankind. In a sense, Simon was marked, too. At least, that’s my take on it… Apparently, Countee Cullen felt the same.
Think about this: Was Simon of Cyrene “invited” or “forced” to help Christ, on the way to Golgotha? Did Cullen’s poem help clarify this mysterious juxtaposition of Christ & Simon? How important is the story of the Crucifixion? Simon’s story? Simply think about it within the context of the approaching Easter celebrations.
Regardless of whether or not your thoughts stem from religious or literary perspectives, please feel free to share them within the ‘comments’ section below. Thank you.
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