Give me one shot at my life today.
I don’t want to be a stranger.
I don’t want to be just a passerby.
— O.A.R., One Shot
It’s hard to be a bystander, just passing by. All you want to do is mind your own business and stay out of other people’s way — neither to be a bother nor be bothered. Keep your nose clean, and enjoy a little peace. Is that really asking so much?
And then, without asking for it, along comes life: Your peace is disturbed, your hands get dirty, and you’re thrust into something you didn’t ask for or want to be a part of. There’s something you have to do something about.
Bystanders sometimes just stand around and “watch the show.” As long as they mind their own business, a certain morbid curiosity might apply. We wonder how a young woman can be assaulted in the middle of a party and yet nobody saw anything, said anything or did anything. More often, bystanders pretend “not to see.”
Think of the classic case of Kitty Genovese, stabbed outside her Queens home in 1964 in view of more than 30 witnesses, none of whom did anything. Of course, they saw something, but, like a certain priest and a certain Levite traveling a certain road from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10:30-32), sometimes some may think it’s better to say their prayers and keep whistlin’ Dixie as they go on their way.
Among the figures who cross the stage of the Paschal Triduum is a man I consider the patron saint of bystanders, as well as a pretend bystander. Let me introduce Simon of Cyrene.
Jesus is on his way to his death, sentenced by Pilate to be crucified, carrying his cross down the Via Dolorosa out of the city he entered so triumphantly, as we read in the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday. He’s clearly struggling, and the Pharisees don’t want him to die along the way — not out of compassion, but because they want to see him breathe his last on a cross, theological proof that he was cursed by God (see Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
But after a night of physical and judicial abuse, a morning trial, a flogging that left many men dead and a brutal mockery of the “king” game, Jesus just might expire along the way.
And, just as Jesus is in the midst of the central act of human history, there comes a passerby on his way back from the fields, a certain Simon. Was his day over? Or was he just on a lunch break? Was he hurrying home for that “solemn feast day?” Or was he even a Jew? Had he stopped for a moment to see the show, maybe get a look at the unlucky guy who would soon be suffocating under the noonday sun, the full weight of his body suspended on spikes in his arms and legs? Or did he just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when he encountered the Way of the Cross?
No matter: Hurrying or tarrying, two men came together. Seeing their reeling prisoner, the executioners looked around and saw a bystander who looked pretty strong. “Hey, you! Help out here!”
Now, you probably don’t tell a Roman soldier, “No.” But: “Why me? I don’t need this. I was just minding my own business.”
Call it what you want — chance, fate, destiny or Providence brought two men together, face-to-face, eye-to-eye.
No doubt Simon hoped the Roman would divert his gaze, giving him a chance to slip into the crowd and slink off. But the Roman was relentless, and, unable to evade his gaze, he found himself staring instead at the One for whom he was to “take up his cross and follow” (Mark 8:34).
Christian tradition holds that Simon, at first recalcitrant, changes beneath that gaze from being unwillingly impressed to voluntary journeyman.
A certain 19th-century Polish mystic spoke about the transformative power of encountering Christ’s gaze. In her visions of Christ’s passion, Wanda Malczewska saw Simon coming back into the city after having come to town in search of a plot of land to rent. Reluctantly forced into the job of carrying Christ’s cross, his look into Christ’s face changes him.
“Christ looked upon him, and Simon understood that gaze — he immediately understood the mystery of the cross and fell in love with the Lord Jesus. … I heard him tell the Lord Jesus: ‘Forgive me, Lord, for not having rushed … at the first demand of the Jews, for I did not know you. [But seeing you suffer] I have come to the conviction that you are God hidden in human flesh. Your gaze confirmed my convictions, penetrating me to the depths of my being. It seemed to me that I could not carry your cross, which they put upon me, but I am now carrying [it] easily, because you, Lord, accompany me. Don’t leave me. …”
It’s hard to look somebody in the face and be indifferent. Even Simon the bystander could not resist. But the Passion account also tells us about another gaze, this time involving a pseudo-bystander. This passerby did not stumble upon Jesus by chance, though he wanted everybody around him to believe that. In the high priest’s courtyard, St. Peter wanted people to take him as just another onlooker, somebody who just happened to stop by the warm fire on a cold night. He knows nothing — nothing. But a cock crows, Jesus looked at him (Luke 22:60-61), and the veil of the would-be bystander is ripped away. Roman Brandstaetter, a 20th-century Polish poet who was a convert from Judaism, captured the poignancy of trying to deny what your eyes see. He ends his poem, In the High Priest’s Courtyard, with the devils praying a pseudo-litany to Peter:
Peter, patron of those who flee,
Patron of those who hide.
Patron of those feigning indifference,
Patron of those who close their eyes,
Patron of those who move away from the fire,
Pray for our cowardice.
The bystander confronted by the gaze must decide: Flee or take a stand. Peter fled. Simon took a stand. The gaze leaves none neutral.
The early 20th-century American poet Countee Cullen, in his work Simon the Cyrenian Speaks, likewise captures the force of that gaze: “... 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.”
Do we know what happened to Simon? Tradition says that he and his sons became faithful Christians, and there is usually more behind tradition than just pious legend. But I also remember a scene from the movie Dr. Zhivago that I ponder in Simon’s context.
In the scene, Lara goes to confession to admit her fornication with Komarovsky. The Orthodox priest asks her: “What did Our Lord tell the woman caught in adultery?”
“Go and sin no more,” she replied.
“And did she?”
“I don’t know, Father!”
“Nobody does, child.”
I accept the tradition that Simeon became a disciple, but I also consider that “nobody knows” what came of him. Still, his was a choice — the choice of a passerby that came across another’s way that Good Friday. At that moment, Simon — patron of passersby — had a choice and, forced yet free (like we so often are), entered history. Almost 2,000 years later, we remember the name of a man who was “coming in from the fields” (Luke 23:26) the same way we remember a man who, earlier that morning, encountered Jesus and by his choices also made a name for himself, for the next two millennia, every Sunday in the Creed around the world.
No matter how much we may want to stand aside, along comes Life (John 14:6).
John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.