I recently learned that monarch butterflies are multigenerational migrators. This means that one generation of butterflies makes the trip south in the fall, where they lay eggs and die. Their offspring start the journey back north in the spring but don’t make it all the way. Partway through the journey, these butterflies stop, lay eggs, and die. Their offspring do another leg of the return journey, but not the whole thing. This pattern repeats until the butterflies complete the journey north. Some butterflies take 4 or 5 generations to return from migration. There is some evidence that the instructions for completing this migratory journey, which they’ve never done before, are encoded in their DNA. These butterflies, with no previous experience or learning, or other butterflies to follow, know exactly where and when to migrate because God designed them to do so. (Side note: as a believer and a science teacher, this is a great example of how science and nature point me to the existence of a Creator, but that’s a topic for another conversation. Don’t even get me started on the patterns in the periodic table.)
To me, the monarch butterflies are an example of God using nature to reinforce a concept for us about our relationship to God. This concept is one that I see in the story of Simon of Cyrene. All three of the synoptic gospels tell the story of Simon, but I think Luke’s version allows for the most midrash:
“As they led Jesus away, they grabbed Simon, a man from Cyrene, who was coming in from the countryside. They put the cross on his back and made him carry it behind Jesus.” (Luke 23:26)
Breaking this verse into smaller chunks helps me to understand it better.
“As they led him away…”
Jesus had spent most of the previous night being beaten, mocked, and spat on by Roman soldiers. They send him to Pilate, who sends him to Herod (in Luke’s gospel), who sends him back to Pilate. Neither Pilate nor Herod can find any reason why Jesus should be put to death, but the Jewish leaders and crowd insist on it. Pilate orders Jesus flogged before crucifixion. While Jewish law set a limit on how many times a person could be flogged, Roman practice was that it would end only when the flogger grew tired. We have no idea how brutalized Jesus had been before He was forced to walk to the crucifixion site, while carrying a wooden crossbeam.
“...they grabbed Simon, a man from Cyrene, who was coming in from the countryside.”
Most likely, Simon was Jewish by faith, and had made the trek from his home in a Greek city in North Africa to Jerusalem for the Passover. While he was of a similar faith background, he probably had a different cultural background from the rest of the crowd at the crucifixion. (Side note: We can also assume that Simon had darker skin than those in the crowd around him, and we could delve into what that meant in first century Palestine, but that’s another topic for another conversation.)
“They put the cross on his back and made him carry it …”
As an occupying force in Jerusalem, it was common practice for Roman soldiers to make civilians carry their gear. They had extended this policy to force people to carry the crossbeams for condemned criminals, when the criminals were too weak to do it themselves and were taking too long to get to the crucifixion site. Many people died before even making it to their crucifixions.
I need to pause here -I have a few thoughts and questions.
First, if Jesus was too weak to carry his cross, that’s on you, Roman soldier. If He’s taking too long to get up this hill, and you are so worried about missing your brunch reservations that you find someone else to carry the wooden beam, you shouldn’t have beaten Him that much.
Second, is the Son of God ever too weak to do something? (Side note: I’m not trying to start a “fully God versus fully human” debate. I’m just thinking out loud here.) Maybe Simon carrying the crossbeam allowed Jesus the space to teach the crowd one last time, which He does in Luke 27-31.
“They put the cross on his back and made him carry it behind Jesus.”
The text says that Simon carried the crossbeam behind Jesus. Simon followed in Jesus’ footsteps as Jesus gave His message to the crowd. Simon didn’t move in front of Jesus and lead the way. He followed Jesus for his part of the journey, just like our monarch butterflies.
None of the gospels say how far Simon carried the crossbeam, but I know some things to be true:
When they got to the top of the hill, was Simon crucified in Jesus’s place? Nope.
Did Simon atone for the sins of the world with his death and resurrection? For sure not.
From Simon of Cyrene and the monarch butterflies, God teaches me that it isn’t always on me to finish the job - sometimes I just need to follow Jesus for my part of the journey.
Here are some ways I apply this to my life:
Is it my job to end this pandemic? Nope.
But my part is to wear my mask and social distance to keep people safe, even if it makes my life a little tougher.
Can I end racial discrimination and dismantle white supremacy all on my own? For sure not.
But my part is to learn, to have tough conversations, vote (politically and financially) for a more just society, and use my privilege to amplify the voices of the marginalized.
Is it up to me to single-handedly smash the patriarchy? Nope.
But my part is to support causes that make the world safer for ALL women, like advocating for equal pay, access to affordable healthy food, and consequences for violence against women and children.
Can I end the school to prison pipeline? For sure not.
But I can work to make my classroom equitable for all students, and check my implicit bias, so that every student I teach gets a fair shot at thriving (not just surviving) after high school.
The example of Simon of Cyrene, repeated in nature in monarch butterflies, helps bring me back to balance. So often I pendulum between “This problem isn’t being fixed quickly enough!” and “This problem is too big for me to solve- what good will I do?”
Simon of Cyrene and the monarch butterflies are the voice of God, gently whispering to me “Just walk your portion of the journey. Follow me. I’ll finish it.”