It's a long way from Cyrene to Jerusalem - in Africa and well west of Alexandria. I managed to catch a boat this year, a cargo vessel with a few passengers and some Roman troops as well. Those Romans always seem to make sure they have some reinforcements around when the Passover is on. I guess it's because so many Jews from everywhere converge on Jerusalem at this time of the year. It certainly is a time when our nationalist feelings run strongest!
This year, of course, there had been a bit of an uprising. Caught two of them, so I'm told - Barabbas and two accomplices. I suppose that would give the Romans extra cause for concern.
Anyway my boat was held up in bad storms. The Jews on board were getting a bit edgy - not just because of seasickness, but because the Passover means so much to us and we didn't want to be too late for it! But the soldiers eyed us up and down suspiciously, inferring we might be connected with the uprising.
Finally we arrived in Joppa. The place was much quieter than usual. The annual exodus for Passover was already well advanced. We set off with the stragglers. A nice lot of people they were really - helped us catch up on the local news.
That's when I first heard of this Jesus of Nazareth. Well... a few stories had come to Cyrene, but not much. Mostly our news was at Passover time, and, to a lesser extent, at the other feasts. Jesus appears to have been a very straight, direct man, excellent teacher for the ordinary people and a worker of miracles. But He was what you might call controversial - not so much with the ordinary people as with the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees. None of our informers were quite sure what the trouble was - a bit of jealousy perhaps - plus the question of just who Jesus really is. You see, He's a person of such outstanding humility and genuineness, yet hiding a greatness you can only guess at.
Well, that's what I picked up. You see, I hadn't met him - not until today! But I'll come to that soon. Things happened all in a rush, and I want to try to get it right. It seems our leaders planned a sort of an ambush - got one of his followers to betray Him or something. Anyway, their council quickly agreed to send Him to Pilate for the death penalty. They didn't have any strong grounds for their case against Jesus at all - and Pilate soon found him completely innocent. But they did have these strong grounds - Pilate was in trouble with Rome! Already one bad report had gone in and Pilate couldn't afford another - news of that had reached Cyrene! With the recent riots on his hands he really had to avoid a major complaint being lodged.
Coming down the Mount of Olives, we could hear the shouting. "Barabbas! Barabbas! We want Barabbas!" they were chanting. This must have gone on for a couple of minutes, then - silence! Soon they started shouting again, "Crucify him! Crucify him!"
We had no real idea what it was all about, except that the folk with us from Joppa had told us a bit about Barabbas. That's all we knew. It seemed so odd for Passover time. The chanting stopped, and we heard the noisy arguing and chattering of an excited crowd.
We were just coming into the city when we saw a detachment of soldiers coming toward us, followed by a great crowd. Not wanting trouble, we backed off the road and waited. Three men were being taken out to the Place of the Skull - the horrible place with its strong upright posts just waiting for the next victims of crucifixion! Horrible, offensive Roman practice! But even more horror for us as we waited - a few of the Jews who followed were weeping and wailing, but many seemed strangely eager and excited!
Three men carrying their cross-bars to the Place! Our Joppa companions whispered that they thought two of them were in the uprising, but the leader, Barabbas, wasn't there - he must have been released. The governor can do that as a favour at feast-times. They weren't sure about the other one at first. He had been so savagely whipped and there was blood on his face. But as the procession got closer they said, "That looks like Jesus!" And so it was. Struggling along under the weight of the cross-bar on his bruised and bleeding back, he slipped and fell. They picked him up and lifted the cross-bar onto his back again. But it was no good - a few more steps and he was over again. It was cruel to see. Instinctively I took a step forward. Then, remembering the situation, I froze where I was!
The big burly soldier looked around. "You!" he called out in my direction. "Come and carry the cross for this man!"
I came forward quickly. The others from Cyrene were amazed - and our companions from Joppa! That cross-bar was heavy - but I hadn't been flogged! I could carry it all right and Jesus, still stooped, walked alongside. I heard a dry whisper, "Simon... thank you!" He knew my name!
And that's how I met Jesus. There was a real warmth about him - a care for others in the midst of his own suffering, a concern for the future of our city and people - a future that he would miss out on!
When we got to the Place, the people spread out into a wide circle. That's when I noticed our Jewish leaders there - they seemed to be stirring the excitement. I thought that odd. Very odd.
I lowered the cross-bar near the post the officer indicated to me. My job was over. I could now retreat to the circle of on-lookers. But I didn't! I felt the attraction of Jesus and the suffering he was going through. For those minutes of carrying I had shared the minutest part of that suffering. Or had I? I saw his pain as the hammers drove the nails home, and as the ropes hoisted him on that cross-bar up the post. The two criminals they put on either side of him.
Silence fell on the crowd. What was to be done had now been done. From the cross Jesus was looking around - at the Roman soldiers, about to bet on his clothes, at the chief priests and the crowd and at the weeping ones, edging closer now. "Forgive them, Father!" He said. "They don't know what they are doing!"
A lot of things began to happen now. People began talking and moving closer - his closest friends right to the foot of the cross. The Jewish leaders hurled insults at him - the soldiers too!
Two things stand out for me during that time. One was a word of assurance and comfort to one of the criminals - "I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me!" The other was when he cried out, "It is finished!" There was something about the way he said that. It wasn't the cry of someone who's had it and is about to expire. It was as if he'd said, "I've done it!" - the suffering is complete! - because then he commended his spirit to the Father and died.
I don't know what to make of it all now. I carried the cross! I heard him speak! It was clearly a miscarriage of justice - it should never have happened! Suddenly the credibility of our leaders is called in question. Yet in a way it seems it had to happen - Jesus seemed to accept the miscarriage of justice. I'm not sure what he's finished, what he's done! But I doubt that it's the end of the matter. Perhaps I may find out more, before I leave for home next week.