The Fifth Station: Simon of Cyrene — the Paper Disciple


How could he have known, this Simon of Cyrene, his day in Jerusalem would enshrine him in history? Who is he? Why is he mentioned at all? Here, at the fifth station of the cross, Jesus is so forsaken by his disciples, Roman soldiers have to compel bystanders to help him. Simon, under the soldier’s redress, takes up this dishonour not his to bear; a dishonour which would later be counted him as an honour. He is an accidental, unwilling, and unwitting disciple. Indeed several initial commenters imagined him as a stand-in for various types of early Jesus followers.

Interpreting Simon: Three, Early, Canonical Angles

Now, early Christian writers sketched Simon in three main ways. Some imagined Simon as the first disciple who literally took up his cross to follow Jesus. With the original twelve disciples absent, Simon of Cyrene becomes the disciple par excellence. Another group represented Simon as the first Gentile who follows Jesus. Cyrene is, after all, in North Africa (part of contemporary Libya). These first two interpretations were also sometimes combined. In addition, notice the quick reference to his sons. Where his sons well know in Christian community in Rome who first received Mark’s gospel?

Gregory the Great, furnishes us with a third opinion. Gregory the Great felt Simon was…well not that great. Rather than a faithful or first follow, Gregory dismissed Simon as an example of a begrudged follower of Jesus. Simon, Gregory thinks, represents those who are Christian because everyone expects it of them. Can’t we all identify a little with each of these Simons: the follower, the outsider invited to follow, the reluctant follower?

Making Simon Less (Self) Important: the Paper Disciple

Yet, a fouth option seems to me the most interesting one. An alternative which arguably makes Simon even less significant. A possibility imagined by the 2nd and 3rd century CE scholar Origen of Alexandria. Origen gives Simon the status of a paper town. What is a paper town? Paper towns are settlements that appear on maps but don’t actually exist. They are often drawn at crossroads. Such paper towns are drawn on maps for three reasons. First, they might be used as a copyright marker. Second, they sometime happen by accident. Third, they might function as a virtual marker around which the rest of the map might be structured.

The funny thing about paper towns, though, they sometimes come into being because they are drawn on maps. Take, for example, Agloe, New York, a town invented on a 1930s map as a copyright trap. In 1950, a general store was built where Agloe was marked on the map and it was named Agloe General Store. The Agloe General Store started the process of manifesting the paper town Agloe, New York.

Similarly, Origen believed Simon, because so little was know about him, was the paper town of the Passion narratives. For example, Simon conspicuously arrives at very similar places in all synoptic gospels during the Passion. Moreover, except for the Passion narratives, he is never mentioned again. So, Origen thinks Simon is a paper town: he acts to authenticate and structure the Passion.

But like Agloe, New York, a phantom can inspire, manifest, become not so phantom any more. Like Agloe, Simon might be a paper town or better: a paper disciple. He helps structure the story Jesus’ Passion. He is a vanishing disciple around which God salvation story becomes manifest.

Overlying Cartographies: Simon and Us

In the cartography of life, don’t we put prize conscious decisions a little high? Indeed, it might be the opportunities to love which happens to us, or are even forces upon us, which are the most important. Not that decisions are unimportant, we should just not pretend we know every outcome of our conscious choices. Maybe Simon reminds us that even a paper disciple can echo through history. Like a paper town, even paper disciples can start out by not knowing anything or even existing. We all, in fact, might be more Simon-like — paper disciples around which Jesus passion love becomes more manifest in the world — even sometimes without our willingness or knowledge?