It had started out as such a great day for Simon.
He was fulfilling the dream of every Jew—especially those living outside the Holy Land, who each spring say, "Next year, in Jerusalem"—to spend Passover in that holy place.
But just as he was reaching the gates of the city, a huge crowd surged out. The hated occupiers were leading criminals to execution. Simon watched with a mixture of pity and contempt. Then one of them—a particularly bloody one—collapsed at his feet.
Next thing Simon knew, his arm was snatched and he was dragged forward. "You!" the soldier shouted. "Help him!"
Simon opened his mouth to protest, only to find a sword-point just below his chin. He sighed and complied.
But inwardly he rebelled. Why me? Why must I share in the shame of this evildoer? I've done nothing wrong. And why now? Just as I'm reaching Jerusalem! Now I will be unclean; and there is not enough time before the Passover to be made clean. What a grievous disappointment.
Somewhere along the way, though, Simon must have realized Who it was that he was helping. At some point he must have decided to follow Jesus—not just to Golgotha—but for the rest of his life, to the heavenly city. We know his name; we know the names of his sons, Rufus and Alexander; how could the evangelists include their names in the Gospels unless they had joined the Christian community? We don't know the name of the rich young man, who chose not to follow Him.
So somewhere along the way, Simon must have realized what a tremendous privilege he had been given: to minister to the Christ, the Son of God, in His need, during His Passion. No one was closer to Jesus at this crucial time than Simon of Cyrene.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps, Simon realized that it was not himself who was innocent and undeserving to carry a cross, but Jesus. Somewhere along the way, perhaps, he understood that he was not helping Jesus to carry His cross, but Jesus was helping Simon to carry what properly belonged to the Cyrenian, and taking the lion's share of the burden.
I read this week in The Handbook of Spiritual Perfection, by Fr. Philip Dion, that one common way we put self before God is when we rebel against His permissive will. When we fret over the little inconveniences or fume over our trials.
The key is to recognize the opportunity at hand. A priest at a conference once said that whenever he experiences a difficulty, he says, "Welcome, Jesus!"
When we are pulled out of our way and forced to carry a cross, like Simon, we must not focus on the cross, but see Who is beneath it. See the One to whom we are being given the privilege to draw close, the honor to help. Realize that the cross properly belongs to us, not to Him, and truly He is helping us, not the other way around. Realize that when we are yoked to Him, He carries the heavier portion, and makes it sweet and light for us.
Let us not imitate those in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday who welcomed Jesus when He came in as the Son of David, but reviled Him when He carried the cross for them.
Let us instead, put ourselves in the place of Simon, and when we see the cross, look for the One beneath it, and gladly step forward from the crowd and humbly rejoice in every opportunity to be close to Him.