John only references the story of Simon from Cyrene (Found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and omits the story of the daughters of Jerusalem (found only in Luke). For John, the significance of Jesus’s journey from the Gabbatha to Golgatha is found in his continuing intentional drinking of the Father’s cup. He had a mission, and he would complete it, as any brave and mighty king would do.
Simon of Cyrene
John stepped sideways just enough for Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Salome, Susanna, Mary the mother James and Joseph, and several more women to slip into the small gap he had created. The procession of the Praetorium cohort, led by a Centurion, was steadily approaching, though every so often the crowd near the condemned men would suddenly step back as one or another fell beneath his heavy wooden load.
I see him, John spoke in a hoarse whisper and pointed as discreetly as he could. The Master had fallen to his knees and was even now collapsing under the awkward weight of his cross. One of the soldiers swore and spat at yet another delay. He threw his head back and forth looking for a swarthy man with strength in his back, then suddenly reached into those nearby, crowding close. With a quick jerk, John saw he had pulled forth a man in the garb of Africa, with two more young men, similarly costumed, coming up quickly behind him.
Without a word, the soldier heaved the man towards Jesus so that he almost stumbled and fell upon the rabbi’s prone and nearly still body, under the cross. John noticed the resemblance between the three men and thought perhaps a father with his sons, or brothers on pilgrimage. The younger ones helped lift the heavy cross to the older man’s shoulders, dragging the Master with it, bound as he was to it. Those nearby coughed and sputtered at the dust kicked up, the wind now billowing clouds of it into onlookers’ eyes and mouths.
The Magdalene had clutched john’s arm so hard it hurt, but the mother of Jesus stood resolute, her eyes on her son.
With another sharp shove from the pommel of his short sword, the soldier goaded the man conscripted to carry Christ’s cross. He staggered forward, the younger men close by, walking along the edge of the cobble-stoned street between the procession and the press of passersby. Soldiers also spread out, keeping a wary eye on them and the roiling mass of people. This was always a dangerous time. Passover brought out the zealots, and a crucifixion cavalcade even more so. Every soldier now had his short cape thrown back, one hand on his weapon, and the other held out at the ready.
As they neared, John saw Jesus’s lips moving, and the man carrying his cross leaning in, his brows drawn tightly together, sweat beading and sliding down his face, his knuckles white as he gripped the crossbeam. Dark patches of moisture were slowly advancing across the back of his garment, and dark stains of blood spread wherever his cloak touched the rabbi. The younger men passed so close to John he could see their worried looks and feel their breath across his face. They smelled of woodsmoke and olive oil and sage.
Daughters of Jerusalem
Jesus was the last of the cross-bearers, behind him a coterie of armed men guarded the rear, but behind them was a growing column of men and women who had begun the wails of mourning, the women ululating in piercing cries of lament. They are from the mount, John thought, as his throat once again constricted, and his chest pressed in on his breath. He wanted to thrust his own head back as well, to let cry the immense knot of pain bearing down on every side. They do not know what their leaders have done.
John’s though startled him. Their leaders. And he realized he no longer saw the temple authorities as keepers of God’s Law and God’s Covenant, as the lords of God’s holy habitation, and the servants of God’s holiness. Having heard them cry, We do not have a king if not Caesar, so seared his spirit, they were burned out of his heart. They did this! He wanted to cry out. The chief priests did this, the Sanhedrin did this. But he knew, the procurator had done this too. The betrayer Judas had done his part. So had the zealots at the Praetorium. And so had the wily fox Herod. Before he could go on, another thought within him interjected.
Do not let your heart be disturbed. The sound of the words in his inner ear caused the hair on his neck and arms to stand straight, for they had been said in the Master’s voice as he had spoken them the night before. Only the night before, but which now seemed a lifetime ago.
As he listened to the growing howls of shock and grief, he could also hear inside himself Jesus’s voice speaking with a quiet and powerful peace, Amen, amen, I say to you that you will sob and wail aloud in sorrow and in pain. You yourselves will lament but the world will rejoice. You will be heavy with distress, but your distress will turn into calm and joyful delight. And even as he remembered these things the man holding Jesus’s cross had stopped and drug the cross sideways, as Jesus leaned on him and also turned. Soldiers shouted, people yelled and jumped to avoid being hit by its endpiece. Then, with surprising force, Jesus’s voice rang out. The Master’s chest hove with the effort, his body trembling.
Daughters of Jerusalem!
John could feel the familiar mysterious surge of power course through his body, his pulse quickening. All around him it was as though a visible ripple of energy moved out like the concentric rings on a lake when a pebble is tossed in. Wider and wider it grew, as eyes rounded, faces paled, voices stilled, and even the soldiers softened and stood motionless, hands loosely by their sides.
Do not wail in loud lament over me—rather over yourselves sob in sorrow and over your children.
All were stricken by the Master’s words, though he had spoken with warm compassion, his trembling body held erect, his eyes shining and dark. The wind and sun had found him, for within the dust swirling every mote shone as of gold, and around him spun a slow vortex of sparkling light. The scent of lightning just struck held the heavy anticipation of storm.
For behold an hour is coming in which you all will say, “Blessed are the ones who did not bring forth young, and wombs that did not bear life, and breasts that did not nurse little ones.”
Tears were now streaming down the rabbi’s bruised and bleeding cheeks, as he wept openly. Breathing heavily for a few moments, he spoke again, his voice moving over the people in slow waves of deep sorrow. As he spoke, he lifted his chin to first indicate the soldiers, and then the crowd.
At that time they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall upon us!” and to the hills, “Hide us!”
The effect of Jesus’s voice and words was so compelling, the people looked fearfully around them, to the greening hills of Zion. Many had gasped, and a murmuring had begun, moving as a brook through onlooker and soldier alike.
For if in the green wood they are doing these things, Jesus’s voice thundered and he looked meaningfully at the cross beside him, What will happen in the dry? His voice had become hoarse, but its crackle was that of flames, and even as he spoke the swirling flickers of sparkling dust had now taken on the spiked undulations of a forest fire.
The moment hung suspended.
Then broke with the sharp bark of sardonic laughter coming from one of the condemned. The soldiers remembered themselves as several tugged roughly on the ropes of the two other criminals who were slated to die with Jesus. Another soldier kicked the man carrying Jesus’s cross, who started and again slowly swung the heavy wood as he turned to face the hill of execution just outside Jerusalem’s walls.
[Jesus fallen under the cross | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]