Gospel of John: First Sight

Simon of Cyrene

Simon sat up and stretched the kinks out of his shoulders. Sleeping on the ground was getting harder at his age, but the trip had been very worth these small privations. He remembered when his own father had taken him with his brothers from their home city of Cyrene up to Jerusalem. It had been a long journey, traveling with a caravan along the Mediterranean coast across Libya, then Egypt, north through Idumea and Arabia, until finally they had camped among the hills of Zion. In his mind’s eye he could see himself as a boy of twelve, round-eyed and breathless the first time they had climbed the broad steps to the temple mount, then still under construction.

Ruins of Cyrene, Libya | By Maher27777 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9024884

Today, he and his own sons were camped among the hills. Only now, they could see the temple on Mount Zion every night, shimmering like the lamp of God, its burnished golden walls reflecting the glow of the giant menorah lit every evening by priests.

He tousled the head of his oldest, Rufus, and gently patted Alexander, who was large for a twelve-year-old. Come, boys, we must make haste. Today is the Preparation of Passover, and we must find our paschal lamb. They had made connection with the ruler of the Synagogue of the Freedmen, where Simon’s father before him had taken them. Tonight, they would celebrate the Passover with other pilgrims from Cyrene and spend the night there rather than in the rough, under the stars.

Rufus propped himself up on an elbow and smiled at his father. Already, he was planning his own pilgrimage to Jerusalem in his imagination. Apprenticed to his father as a worker of wood and stone, he would soon get his first certificate, and be eligible to take on his own projects. He knew his father had been speaking quietly with Talia’s father, and hoped it would a betrothal before the year was out.

The roots of their family had been a part of the Diaspora centuries before, and though his heritage included Africa as well as Israel, their faith had remained with the Most Holy One from generation to generation. Their genealogy was carefully preserved in the temple, and it would be their very great privilege to each present their own half shekel this year as true sons of Israel.

Quickly, they rolled their things into tight packs and strung these across their backs. Simon gave each of them a dense cake of dates, honey, almonds, and raisins, and each also a large hard button of boiled and dried greens. After refilling their skins with water from a nearby brook, they briskly set foot towards the Holy City.


Exhaustion was slowly seeping through John’s body so that he felt weak even to stand, were in not for the press of people all around him. Onlookers had already begun to line the street on both sides, crowding to the very edge, jostling each other, grabbing the hands and arms of their children, shifting their loads and pushing as close as they could to the front. In the distance, John could see a disturbance around what would be the prison’s gate attached to Herod’s prominent sparkling white marble palace. 

Here was death at its grimmest, ugly and dark, bloodied and beaten, accompanied by degradation and humiliation.

They tried to hide their shame from God and from each other, his inner ear heard the rabbi from his boyhood say. They sewed fig leaves together, and here their rabbi would swirl his cloak around in a shivering way as though it itched, and the boys would laugh and laugh. Adonai judged each of them in the hearing of the others. All three the Lord had together.

And by now, the rabbi had three boys pulled from the rest and lined them up as he spoke over his shoulder to the others.

To the Lying Serpent, and the boys would murmur in high dudgeon, you shall eat the dirt, and you shall lose your limbs, and you shall crawl like the snake you are!

But what else did he tell this Deceiver? And the rabbi would test their knowledge of the sacred writings.

A Savior is coming! They all vied with each other to be the first to say it, for their rabbi always had something special for that boy, a sweet bun, or a fig, or a salty dried sprat.  

Yes! The seed of the woman. The Deceiver will bite that one’s heel, but what will the Savior do?

Crush his head! They loved this answer, for it meant the oppressors would be crushed! It meant the Almighty would restore Israel, and the Branch of David would sprout a new king.

And who was listening to this prophecy of the Lord?

The woman, several boys would breathe, but the older ones would remember and say, the man!

Yes, exactly so. The woman. And the man. The woman who had been deceived would have her comeuppance, for from her seed would come her Savior to vanquish the Liar, the one of old, the Serpent who was her enemy.

Their rabbi would look at them with such an exultant expression of triumph, sometimes the boys would cheer.

But, also the man was listening, and he had -not- been deceived. No, he had -rejected- the rule of the Sovereign. Who was his ally now? Was it the woman?

Some of the younger boys would hesitantly nod, but John, remembering, now shook his head even as he watched the distant commotion make its slow way down the street. No, their wise rabbi had taught them. No, the man had allied himself with the serpent. It is why things are the way they are today. The man would have to do something about the woman, if she were an enemy of his new ally.

And the woman, what did she hear from the Lord?

Sorrowful toil, said one boy, many offspring, said another. The rabbi would always nod and encourage them, waving his hands up, up, to inspire more answers. She will desire the man. The man will rule over her.

Is this true? Did these things happen?

Oh yes, the boys would volley back, oh yes these things are true. All of them had mothers, and their mothers had born many children, some who had died. Sometimes the mother died. John thought of them now. And in every home, the fathers ruled the mothers and the children. This was the way of things.

The man, overhearing the Lord’s word to the woman, knew she would desire him, and that he would rule her, a plan that had only just begun to form in his own mind as he overheard the Lord’s word to the Serpent. And he discovered the sorrowful toil she would have would also be his own, wrestling life from the earth.

But the worst came last. They would not have access to the Tree of Life any longer. They would now inherit death. Two fierce angelic warriors took guard of the Garden, their supernatural swords aflame with cosmic power, and the man and woman were cast out.

And did they die? Their rabbi would ask, his white hair curling around the edges of his head shawl, and his very wrinkled hands now finally at rest in his lap.

The boys would nod.

John and Andrew were often the ones to say the rest,

Their spirits died, for they were cut off from the Breath of Life. Their inward beings died, for they were no longer one heart, only one flesh. Their bodies slowly died, for from the dust they came, so to the dust they went.

Now John could make out a figure approaching, a Roman Centurion, placards tucked under his arm, his short cape fluttering. The smell of food hung in the air. John’s mouth watered, reminding him of how hungry he was, fresh bread coming from ovens in nearby courtyards, the pungency of salted dried fish, combined with the ripe odor of many bodies packed cheek to jowl. A faint, almost imperceptible waft of air passed over the top of his head, carrying with it the barest hint of hyssop.

The people farther up the street had begun to call and jeer as the condemned came into view, and now John could indeed see, behind the Centurion and his cadre of foot soldiers, the arm and crossbow of the first prisoner.


[Story taken from John 19:16, with historical material from the book of Acts, the book of Romans, and archaeology]

[Head of a man from Cyrene | By Paul Hudson from United Kingdom – British Museum, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83256126%5D

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