No matter how often it happened, Simon could never get used to the heavy cloud of blood, sweat, and body odor that wafted up from the men carrying their crosses. He wasn’t even supposed to be there that day, walking home from the market when the morbid procession had caught him up in its clutches. And when a guard called him from the crowd, pointing with his bloody whip to a collapsed man, a thorny crown pressed into his skull, cross slicked with his blood, Simon’s heart sank. It didn’t matter if it was his cross to bear, the guard decided he would bear it. He stepped up beside the man, nose crinkling as blood and sweat and death rolled over him in waves. The whip cracked over them, tearing into his unblemished shoulders unfairly. Fire streaked in its wake, spurring them on.
The hill loomed ahead of them, dark clouds rolling behind it. How would they ever make it?
“Thank you,” the man—the criminal—whispered, hoarse, yet unbearably sincere. Simon just nodded, pulling the man’s cross further up his shoulders and ignoring how his bones creaked and screamed in protest as he tucked away his shame. The whip cracked again.
When their faltering steps crested Calvary, Simon almost cried in relief, dropping the cross and staggering back. His clothes were torn and soiled, wet with sweat and mud. The man collapsed, his skin a patch-work art piece of reds, purples, blues, and bone. If his ribs hadn’t been wheezing out shallow, pained breaths, Simon might have thought him dead.
The guards kicked at him, and the man heaved himself up. Kind, haunted eyes met Simon’s own and nodded thanks, again, before being dragged away. Simon swallowed, the ache in his shoulders no match for the weight in his heart.
“Is that man really Jesus?” he asked the soldier.
“That’s what they call him.” Simon nodded, still watching them drag Jesus away. He knew what came next. Everyone knew what came next. The nails, the pleading, the labored breathing, and finally, death. What good would it do to stay? He wasn’t even supposed to be here. What was one more witness?
A breeze moved against his body as he pushed his way through the crowd. A woman sobbed out Jesus’ name. He almost turned, almost joined her and said…something. Anything. But he didn’t. He just kept walking.
Henri Nouwen puts it this way:
Suffering and death belong to the narrow road of Jesus. Jesus does not glorify them, or call them beautiful, good, or something to be desired. Jesus does not call for heroism or suicidal self-sacrifice. No, Jesus invites us to look at the reality of our existence and reveals this harsh reality as the way to new life. The core message of Jesus is that real joy and peace can never be reached while bypassing suffering and death, but only by going right through them.
As we enter these Easter days, may our hearts be moved to rise and rise again through suffering on this narrow road. May we make our choices with eyes wide open, hearts attuned to Jesus’ suffering and his whispered word of gratitude in our ears. May we understand that his love is stronger than any harsh and awful reality. May we answer his invitation to trust with whatever strength and inclination we have…knowing that because he is with us, it is enough.