Via Dolorosa
We have finished the first part of our theme -- the Trial of Jesus -- and turn now to the second and more solemn part of it -- His Death. The trial had been little better than a mockery of justice: on the part of the ecclesiastical authority it was a foregone conclusion, and on the part of the civil authority it was the surrender of a life acknowledged to be innocent to the ends of selfishness and policy. But at last it was over, and nothing remained but to carry the unjust sentence into execution. So the tribunal of Pilate was closed for the day; the precincts of the palace were deserted by the multitude; and the procession of death was formed.


Persons condemned to death in modern times are allowed a few weeks, or at least days, to prepare for eternity; but Jesus was crucified the same day on which He was condemned. There was a merciful law of Rome in existence at the time, ordaining that ten days should intervene between the passing of a capital sentence and its execution; but either this was not intended for use in the provinces or Jesus was judged to be outside the scope of its mercy, because He had made Himself a king. At all events He was hurried straight from the judgment-seat to the place of execution, without opportunity for preparation or farewells.

Of course the sentence was carried out by the soldiers of Pilate. St. John, indeed, speaks as if Pilate had simply surrendered Him into the hands of the Jews, and they had seen to the execution. But this only means that the moral responsibility was theirs. They did everything in their power to identify themselves with the deed. So intent were they on the death of Jesus, that they could not leave the work to the proper parties, but followed the executioners and superintended their operations. The actual work, however, was performed by the hands of Roman soldiers with a centurion at their head.

In this country executions are now carried out in private, inside the walls of the prison in which the criminal has been confined. Not many years ago, however, they took place in public; and not many generations ago the procession of death made a tour of the public streets, that the condemned man might come under the observation and maledictions of as many of the public as possible. This also was the manner of Christ's death. Both among the Jews and the Romans executions took place outside the gate of the city. The traditional scene of Christ's death, over which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built, is inside the present walls, but those who believe in its authenticity maintain that it was outside the wall of that date. This, however, is extremely doubtful; and, indeed, it is quite uncertain outside which gate of the city the execution took place. The name Calvary or Golgotha probably indicates that the spot was a skull-like knoll; but there is no reason to think that it was a hill of the size supposed by designating it Mount Calvary. Indeed, there is no hill near any gate corresponding to the image in the popular imagination. In modern Jerusalem there is a street pointed out as the veritable Via Dolorosa along which the procession passed; but this also is more than doubtful. Like ancient Rome, ancient Jerusalem is buried beneath the rubbish of centuries.[1] From the scene of the trial to the supposed site of the execution is nearly a mile. And it is quite possible that Jesus may have had to travel as far or farther, while an ever-increasing multitude of spectators gathered round the advancing procession.

One special indignity connected with the punishment of crucifixion was that the condemned man had to carry on his back through the streets the cross upon which he was about to suffer. In pictures the cross of Jesus is generally represented as a lofty structure, such as a number of men would have been needed to carry; but the reality was something totally different: it was not much above the height of a man,[2] and there was just enough of wood to support the body. But the weight was considerable, and to carry it on the back which had been torn with scourging must have been excessively painful.

Another source of intense pain was the crown of thorns, if, indeed, He still wore it. We are told that before the procession set out towards Golgotha the robes of mockery were taken off and His own garments put on; but it is not said that the crown of thorns was removed.

Most cruel of all, however, was the shame. There was a kind of savage irony in making the man carry the implement on which he was to suffer; and, in point of fact, throughout classical literature this mode of punishment is a constant theme of savage banter and derision.[3]

There is evidence that the imagination of Jesus had occupied itself specially beforehand with this portion of His sufferings. Long before the end He had predicted the kind of death He should die; but even before these predictions had commenced He had described the sacrifices which would have to be made by those who became His disciples as cross-bearing -- as if this were the last extreme of suffering and indignity. Did He so call it simply because His knowledge of the world informed Him of this as one of the greatest indignities of human life? or was it the foreknowledge that He Himself was to be one day in this position which coloured His language? We can hardly doubt that the latter was the case. And now the hour on which His imagination had dwelt was come, and in weakness and helplessness He had to bear the cross in the sight of thousands who regarded Him with scorn. To a noble spirit there is no trial more severe than shame -- to be the object of cruel mirth and insolent triumph. Jesus had the lofty and refined self-consciousness of one who never once had needed to cringe or stoop. He loved and honoured men too much not to wish to be loved and honoured by them; He had enjoyed days of unbounded popularity, but now His soul was filled with reproach to the uttermost; and He could have appropriated the words of the Psalm, "I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men and despised of the people."

The reproach of Christ is all turned into glory now; and it is very difficult to realise how abject the reality was. Nothing perhaps brings this out so well as the fact that two robbers were sent away to be executed with Him. This has been regarded as a special insult offered to the Jews by Pilate, who wished to show how contemptuously he could treat One whom he affected to believe their king. But more likely it is an indication of how little more Christ was to the Roman officials than any one of the prisoners whom they put through their hands day by day. Pilate, no doubt, had been interested and puzzled more than usual; but, after all, Jesus was only one of many; His execution could be made part of the same job with that of the other prisoners on hand. And so the three, bearing their crosses, issued from the gates of the palace together and took the Dolorous Way.


Though He bore His own cross out of the palace of Pilate, He was not able to carry it far. Either He sank beneath it on the road or He was proceeding with such slow and faltering steps that the soldiers, impatient of the delay, recognised that the burden must be removed from His shoulders. The severity of the scourging was in itself sufficient to account for this breakdown; but, besides, we are to consider the sleepless night through which He had passed, with its anxiety and abuse; and before it there had been the agony of Gethsemane. No wonder His exhaustion had reached a point at which it was absolutely impossible for Him to proceed farther with such a burden.

One or two of the soldiers might have relieved Him; but, in the spirit of horseplay and mischief which had characterised their part of the proceedings from the moment when Christ fell into their hands, they lay hold of a casual passer-by and requisitioned his services for the purpose. He was coming in from the region beyond the gate as they were going out, and they acted under the sanction of military law or custom.

To the man it must have been an extreme annoyance and indignity. Doubtless he was bent on business of his own, which had to be deferred. His family or his friends might be waiting for him, but he was turned the opposite way. To touch the instrument of death was as revolting to him as it would be to us to handle the hangman's rope; perhaps more so, because it was Passover time, and this would make him ceremonially unclean. It was a jest of the soldiers, and he was their laughing-stock. As he walked by the side of the robbers, it looked as if he were on the way to execution himself.

This is a lively image of the cross-bearing to which the followers of Christ are called. We are wont to speak of trouble of any kind as a cross; and doubtless any kind of trouble may be borne bravely in the name of Christ. But, properly speaking, the cross of Christ is what is borne in the act of confessing Him or for the sake of His work. When anyone makes a stand for principle, because he is a Christian, and takes the consequences in the shape of scorn or loss, this is the cross of Christ. The pain you may feel in speaking to another in Christ's name, the sacrifice of comfort or time you may make in engaging in Christian work, the self-denial you exercise in giving of your means that the cause of Christ may spread at home or abroad, the reproach you may have to bear by identifying yourself with militant causes or with despised persons, because you believe they are on Christ's side -- in such conduct lies the cross of Christ. It involves trouble, discomfort and sacrifice. One may fret under it, as Simon did; one may sink under it, as Jesus did Himself; it is ugly, painful, shameful often; but no disciple is without it. Our Master said, "He that taketh not his cross and followeth after Me is not worthy of Me."


The one thing which makes Simon an imperfect type of the cross-bearer is that we are uncertain whether or not he bore the burden voluntarily. The Roman soldiers forced it on him; but was it force-work and nothing else?

Some have supposed that he was an adherent of Christ; but it is extremely improbable that, just at the moment when the soldiers needed someone for their purpose, one of the very few followers of Jesus should have appeared. The tone of the narrative seems rather to indicate that he was one who happened to be there by mere chance and had nothing to do with the proceedings till, against his will, he was made an actor in the drama.

He is said by the Evangelist to have been a Cyrenian, that is, an inhabitant of Cyrene, a city in North Africa. Strangers from this place are mentioned among those who were present soon after at the Feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Church in tongues of fire. And the probability is that Simon had, in a similar way, come from his distant home to the Passover.[4]

He had come on pilgrimage. Perhaps he was a devout soul, waiting for the consolation of Israel. In far Cyrene he may have been praying for the coming of the Messiah and, before setting out on this journey, pleading for a season of unusual blessing. God had heard and was going to answer his prayers, but in a way totally different from his expectations.

For apparently this rencontre issued in his salvation and in the salvation of his house. The Evangelist calls him familiarly "the father of Alexander and Rufus." Evidently the two sons were well known to those for whom St. Mark was writing; that is, they were members of the Christian circle. And there can be little doubt that the connection of his family with the Church was the result of this incident in the father's life. St. Mark wrote his Gospel for the Christians of Rome; and in the Epistle to the Romans one Rufus is mentioned as resident there along with his mother. This may be one of the sons of Simon. And in Acts xiii.1 one Simeon -- the same name as Simon -- is mentioned along with a Lucius of Cyrene as a conspicuous Christian at Antioch: he is called Niger, or Black, a name not surprising for one who had been tanned by the hot sun of Africa. There are Alexanders mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament; but the name was common, and there is not much probability that any of them is to be identified with Simon's son. Still putting the details aside, we have sufficiently clear indications that in consequence of this incident Simon became a Christian.

Is it not a significant fact, proving that nothing happens by chance? Had Simon entered the city one hour sooner, or one hour later, his after history might have been entirely different. On the smallest circumstances the greatest results may hinge. A chance meeting may determine the weal or woe of a life. Doubtless to Simon this encounter seemed at the moment the most unfortunate incident that could have befallen him -- an interruption, an annoyance and a humiliation; yet it turned out to be the gateway of life. Thus do blessings sometimes come in disguise, and out of an apparition, at the sight of which we cry out for fear, may suddenly issue the form of the Son of Man. But it was not Simon's own salvation only that was involved in this singular experience, but that of his family as well. How much may follow when Christ is revealed to any human soul! The salvation of those yet unborn may be involved in it -- of children and children's children.

But think how blessed to Simon would appear in after days the cross-bearing which was at the time so bitter! No doubt it became the romance of his life. And to this day who can help envying him for being allowed to give his strength to the fainting Saviour and to remove the burden from that bleeding and smarting back? So for all men there is a day coming when any service they have done to Christ will be the memory of which they will be most proud. It will not be the recollection of the prizes we have won, the pleasures we have enjoyed, the discomforts we have escaped, that will come back to us with delight as we review life from its close; but, if we have denied ourselves and borne the cross for Christ's sake, the memory of that will be a pillow soft and satisfying for a dying head. In that day we shall wish that the minutes given to Christ's service had been years, and the pence pounds; and every cup of cold water and every word of sympathy and every act of self denial will be so pleasant to remember that we shall wish they had been multiplied a thousandfold.

[1] Interesting details in Ross's Cradle of Christianity.

[2] A soldier was able to reach up to the lips of Christ on the cross with a sponge on a reed.

[3] See Horace, S. ii.7, 47; E. i.16, 48.

[4] Many Jews, indeed, who had once been inhabitants of Cyrene lived in Jerusalem -- old people, probably, who had come to lay their bones in holy ground; for we learn from an incidental notice in the Acts that they had a synagogue of their own in the city; and Simon may have been one of these. But the other is the more likely case.

chapter ix judas iscariot
Top of Page
Top of Page