http://sandersonicons.com/Every March 17th, people of Irish ancestry lead the celebration of their patron, St. Patrick. For one day, we all wear something green, eat corned beef & cabbage, look for four-leafed clovers, and drink Irish beer & whiskey. While we don’t honor him in the black church, we don’t mind joining in the spirit of the day.
Every February 14th, men in particular spend money on cards, candy, flowers, and other gifts to woo their sweethearts in honor of St. Valentine. Chances are that he lived as a celibate monk without candlelight dinners and roses. Quite a few churches have couples events with Cupid symbols as decorations.
And then there is good ol’e St. Nicholas. His feast day is on December 6th. But, of course, we delay his special day, turn him into a more Nordic incarnation, and honor him on the same day we do Jesus Christ. As we confuse the two in the church and get mad when those outside of the church reject the later and embrace the former.
How come the black church does not celebrate a black saint whose example can be embraced by all people? What if there was a black saint who, unlike the fore mentioned heroes of early Church history, is found in the Bible? And wouldn’t it be great if this saint’s feast day happened to fall on a day during Black History Month? Well, our “what if’s” are solved by one man, Simon of Cyrene!
We all know the story of this African saint. In the first three (Synoptic) Gospels, Simon is the man who is forced by the Romans to carry the cross for Jesus up on Calvary for the crucifixion *. Apparently, the cross bearer must have seen something holy in the condemned One. Perhaps he also bore witness of the Lord’s resurrection. Looking at both the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letter to the Romans, Simon clearly raised two sons to be notable sons in the early Church. And, according to ancient Christian tradition, his feast day is February 27th.
Why do we need to celebrate St. Simon of Cyrene Day? I refer back to the example of St. Patrick. Every Christian culture needs to honor someone among them who has been an example of holy living. Simon was forced to carry the cross, yet found the truth of the Gospel beyond the way he was introduced to it. This is not any different from our forefathers and mothers in America who were introduced to being Christians by hypocrite white supremacist, yet they found salvation in Jesus. Why shouldn’t we celebrate a Biblical African whose story is like ours?
But, shouldn’t we glorify God and Him alone? Let us consider that we have the pastor’s anniversary, choir anniversary, deacon’s day, dearness’ day, trustee’s day, junior usher’s day, … . We don’t glorify these people. But we honor them for the service they provide to the body of Christ. Name one African or person of African descent that has done more for Christ than literally lift and carry His cross. Not even his disciples did this. Even more so, Jesus taught us that to follow Him, one must deny himself and carry his cross. Simon is the first example of this. Surely he should be honored like a pastor or a junior usher for a day.
To honor this saint, one need not dig into church history books. Just open up the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and read the scripture of Jesus being led to Golgotha. This isn’t a new passage of the Bible for most of us. It’s in many of our Sunday School lessons before Easter. We hear the words during Holy Week services. Incorporating Simon of Cyrene Day during a worship service, or holding a day service in his honor is re-enforcing the Gospel lesson of our Lord’s death that conquered death. There is nothing wrong with telling the story over and over again.
Referring back to the scripture references in Mark and Romans, it is no secret that there is a high number of absentee fatherhood in our community. Why not then set St. Simon as an example as a role model for Christian fatherhood. Just as parents are our kid’s first teachers, fathers (laymen as well as clergy) ought to be first preachers and examples of Christian manhood for our children and our sons in particular. Our boys and young men need fathers who will teach them to pray, read scripture, and lead Godly lives. Sermons and Sunday School lessons can focus on the role of the man being the head of the house and being the type of man who our women and wives can respect and love and that our girls and daughters will grow to look for in a husband.
Simon of Cyrene is often depicted as a black man. Fr. Jerome Sanderson, and African-American priest in the Bulgarian Orthodox Archdiocese, has produced an icon of the saint. It was made specifically for the St. Simon of Cyrene Mission Parish of the Orthodox Church of America in New Brunswick NJ, pastored by Fr. Deacon Samuel Davis, according to the traditional canons of our faith. You are welcome to contact Fr. Jerome about the use of the icon. Or, you may use some other image of your choosing. I understand, as a former Baptist pastor, that you have your arguments against iconography. I will not debate the point and offer the use of images as a suggestion.
We are in a long-standing battle against white supremacy in this nation. Too often, white skin has been used as a symbol of purity and truth while black represents evil and wickedness. Yet, here it is; a black man bears the cross of our Savior. In the scriptures, Simon was forced to bear the cross for the native Palestinian Jewish Messiah who couldn’t have had pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. By one tradition, this same black man helped remove the nails from the Lord’s body. And obviously, he raised two black sons with a wife considered to be like a mother to the Palestinian Jewish Apostle who brought the Gospel to Europe. Celebrating Simon of Cyrene is a wonderful counter-balance to the myth of white supremacy as God has shown that our race has been proven worthy of His kingdom from the very beginning of Christianity.
It does us no good, however, to boast that we belong to the race of the first man to take up the cross of Christ and not demand that we do this today. We must raise the bar for ourselves as black men. Not only to overcome obvious demons of drugs, gangs, and the like. But, that we must also struggle against hidden sins such as anger, greed, and lust. As we raise the example of the cross-bearer, we should live his example as well. Our Lord taught us that if we clean the inside of the dish, the outside will be clean as well. And we can present this clean dish as an example of the Christian faith. This clean presentation is not some “hand-me-down” to gain favor among conservative evangelicals. No, we do this to honor the black man who was the example of cross bearing manhood for all Christians.
The name “Simon” means “obedient.”*** We can clearly see that the Romans forced him to carry the cross. But, no one ordered him to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. No one made him raise his sons to be Christians. Like the Roman soldier who witnessed the crucifixion and confessed that Jesus must have been the Son of God****, so was Simon compelled to belive in the One he carried the cross for. And doesn’t that sound like the African-American Christian experience. Frederick Douglass and other slaves had a “Christian” identity placed on him. But yet the abolitionist leader saw the love and mercy of Jesus Christ beyond the brutal hypocrisy of white Christians slaveholders and their allies. Bishop Henry McNeil Turner was taught the faith as a boy. But, surely he came to know that Jesus was the suffering savior of the oppressed and not the God of self-righteous oppressors. Even Marcus Garvey, the father of black nationalism, had a strong belief in Jesus Christ as he was a critic of lynch mobs. Black Christians have always had a faith that went beyond our circumstances. It is only fitting that we honor the first black man, the Biblical black man who did this.
And St. Simon’s feast day is within African-American History Month, February 27th. Among the men and women we honor that month, some were not Christian. Others were athletes and entertainers. Others were known for their inventions and innovations in science and technology. Still others were political leaders. Of course there are preachers, pastors, and laymen & women among our great men and women of the past. But, if we can salute these heroes, surely we can salute the Biblical hero who kept the faith, endured a grueling contest, was an example of holy living, gained a portion of the heavenly kingdom, and lived the Gospel.
I propose that every African-American Christian of all denominations and non-denominations celebrate the feast of St. Simon of Cyrene. This can be done on the last Sunday of February as many of us tend to have evening programs during Black History Month. That Sunday, the Sunday School teachers and preachers can use the scriptures referring to him and his son in lessons and sermons. The recognition of St. Simon can be a part of the morning worship without an evening service, if prefered. There can be evening services on February 27th, which falls on a Tuesday. Orthodox Christians may choose to have Vespers services on the 26th as the liturgical day begins at sunset the day before. This will also allow us to participate with our non-Othodox brothers & sisters. We can have traditional (or modern, healthy) soul food meals, have special projects for the poor among us, perhaps a concert of Negro Spirituals. This need (and should) not be a “black only” event. Just as we are all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, we can invite people of all races to be black Christians willing to bear the cross of our Lord, establish Christian marriages, and raise up our children in the faith. Perhaps this could lead to discussions on race that go deeper than the political rhetoric and counter rhetoric that hasn’t been spiritually productive.
In the coming months and weeks, I will write more on this topic and proposal. There are plenty of things here that I can highlight. But, for now, let us begin the process of celebrating our identity as a Christian people through the saint that has shown us how to bear the cross. Let us compel ourselves to live in a greater sense of repentance, self-denial, and holiness. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Sanderson Icons can be found at http://sandersonicons.com/
More information about the St. Simon of Cyrene Orthodox Mission can be found at https://oca.org/parishes/oca-ny-nbwssc
* Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26
**Romans 16:13; This Rufus is believed to be one of the two sons of Simon of Cyrene
***Orthodox Study Bible, pg. 1412, footnote on Luke 23:26