“As they led him away they took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country; and after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus.” (Lk 23:26)

This week we will reflect on the cross as that burden which we help others carry. Jesus did not carry His cross alone. He was battered and beaten and the cross was heavy. In His humanity, it simply became too much for Him and it became apparent that He wasn’t going to make it if left to His own strength.  A bystander who had nothing to do with the situation, but was strong and healthy was called in to help.  By all accounts, Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the cross by the Roman soldiers, but it is hard to imagine that after seeing Jesus suffering so much he wasn’t moved with pity and compassion.

Last week we discussed how in bearing our own crosses, we cooperate with Jesus in His redemptive work. In a very literal and physical way, Simon assisted Jesus in His redemptive work in the Passion.  Jesus was doing the hard work, but Simon helped Him. At the time Simon carried the cross, he had no idea the good that would come about at the end of this terrible event. He could not see the big picture – the eternal picture. Of course, divine providence knew how it would all unfold, and Simon was placed in the exactly the right place at the right time. This wasn’t an accident. Everything that happens in Scripture is intentional and has meaning for us. Simon of Cyrene shows us how we are called to help others carry their crosses in the spirit of sincere charity because all of it is redemptive for the Body of Christ.

Without a doubt, you know that everyone around you is carrying their own crosses. Some of them are known crosses and some of them are unknown crosses.  Likely, the deeper your relationship with someone is, the more you know about the burdens they carry.  Like Simon, divine providence puts you in people’s lives at exactly the right time to help them carry their crosses.  You will not be able to see the big picture and how your role in other people’s suffering will bring about greater good, but if you obey and trust God, the time will come when it will all make sense.

There are so many easy and obvious ways we help others with their crosses that we barely even have to think about it, as if it’s almost a reflex for us. We bring meals to our sick friends or new moms. We visit our loved ones in the hospital. When someone suffers the loss of a loved one, we rally around them help in every way we can. We call on the phone or send a text asking how they are doing. Most importantly, we pray for them. When we see people suffering from the weight of a cross, it is generally our Christian nature to rise to the occasion and help, especially when it’s someone we know and love. Without even consciously being aware of it, we are acting as Simon of Cyrene to others and participating with them in their own redemptive work. We are helping them to carry the cross that will eventually get them to heaven.

What about more subtle ways of acting as Simon to those around us we don’t know as well? We’ve already affirmed that we know everyone around us is carrying a cross, seen or unseen.  For instance, imagine the clerk at the store has a sick husband at home and the stress of it is causing her to be distracted and slow with your order. Without even knowing her troubles, your patience and a kind word could be a moment that lightens her burden, if even a little. Conversely, your impatience and your tense body language could add to the burden she’s already carrying. Without even realizing it, the way we conduct ourselves out in the world could allow us to potentially help lighten someone’s load in every encounter we have.

There are other subtle ways you can help carry cross.  You have likely prayed for a stranger you’ve seen who looks as though they are in need of prayer, but you can go even further than that. Consider choosing someone near you at Mass that perhaps you’ve never spoken to or even seen before and offering the Mass for them. When you bring your suffering as a sacrifice at the Mass and join it to Jesus’ suffering, you can also yoke it to that other person’s cross. Offer your suffering for theirs and make it redemptive for them.  We do that so often for our loved ones, but most of us probably don’t consider doing it for a random stranger. Yet Jesus was a stranger to Simon and he was called to carry His cross.

For whatever reason, God gave me a heart for the souls in Purgatory from an early age. I pray for them often because they need help carrying the crosses their still carrying. Several years ago, I created what I call a “Purgatory jar”. In the jar I have many Popsicle sticks with different types or groups of people.  Here a just a few examples:  members of a specific family, souls still seeking truth, those with mental illness, those who suffer from envy (there is one for each deadly sin), those who suffer from addiction, etc. There is so much room for creativity in choosing what to write on each stick.  Then, on any given day, I can draw a Popsicle stick at random and offer my day’s suffering for those people. I can help people I have never met, carry their cross by yoking it mine and to Jesus’. What I especially like about this practice is that it can apply to those in Purgatory as well as those still living, showing the universal interconnectedness of the entire Body of Christ.  When we are all helping each other, living and deceased, our load is made lighter and we are all pitching in to help one another get to heaven.

I am reminded of a quote by Archbishop Fulton Sheen – “As we enter Heaven, we will see them, so many of them, coming toward us and thanking us. We will ask who they are and they will say: ‘A poor soul you prayed for in purgatory.’” Of course, he specifies the souls in purgatory here, but it most certainly applies to any soul you’ve ever prayed for, whether family, friend, or someone you don’t know. During this Lent, take some time in prayer to notice how you might be called to help your family, friends, and strangers carry their cross on their path to salvation in subtle or silent ways that will bring glory to God in the end rather than to you.