St Simon Day

St. Simon’s Day: Calendar & Common Ground

When I launched the idea and gave an explanation of why African-Americans and Orthodox Christians should celebrate the feast day of St. Simon of Cyrene, a couple of criticisms came up from within the church.  One criticism is a reasonable issue.  In most calendars of the saints we honor, this saint is not found.  Indeed, there is a question of whether or not he was canonized in the first place.

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Deacon Samuel Davis who leads the St. Simon of Cyrene Orthodox Mission Parish in New Brunswick, NJ pointed me out to Hieromonk Herman Majkrzak of the St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, PA who confirmed the date and canonization of the saint:

Dear John,

God bless you!

I found this information in the Ormylia Synaxarion compiled by Hieromonk Makarius of Simons Petras, which is the most well-researched Orthodox collection of saints’ lives that I know of. In this collection he is assigned to Feb. 27th, with a footnote that says:

“This commemoration is found only in the Lectionary Paris BN gr. 282 (9th cent.).”  (Vol. 3, p. 630)

As this is a saint with almost no history of veneration in the Orthodox Church – no service in the Menaion, no date on most calendars, and no life in the Synaxarion – there is very little information to go on.

I wish I could be more helpful!

In Christ,

Hieromonk Herman

Even though he is rarely honored, St. Simon of Cyrene does have a feast day.

This is not to say that the Orthodox Church has relegates African saints to a “file 13.”  On the contrary, one can visiit any website of any jurisdiction and find where several saints from the continent are honored with feast days.  Looking at my Antiochian calendar, Anthony the Great is celebrated on January 17th, Athanasius the Great on the 18th, Macarius the Great on the 19th, Mary of Egypt is honored on April 1st and  the Fifth Sunday of the very important Great Lenten Fast, Pachomius the Great on May 15th, and  Pimen (Poemen the Shepherd) the Great is on August 27th.  In addition to these great ones, there are many more well and lesser known heroic men and women of the faith listed in our records of the saints.

Many of the other great saints of Orthodoxy acknowledge their debt to the Desert Fathers in their quest for spiritual growth.  Saints Basil the Great and John Cassian spent time among them.  Saints Ignatius Brianchaninov and Theophan the Recluse referred to them in their writings.  The very influential Hieromonk Seraphim Rose taught; “You read the words of St. Macarius who lived in the deserts of Egypt in the fourth century, and he’s speaking to you now. …”* Everyone can find a variety of saints of any race and part of the world to honor.

So, why St. Simon of Cyrene?  Why shouldn’t we highlight some other better known saint to help evangelize and find common ground with African-Americans?  During my last year serving as the pastor of a black Baptist congregation, I did my best to expose my congregation to the African saints.  I brought in icons, introduced prayers, I even wrote a skit where a young man meets some of these great men and women in a dream.  The congregation acted it out as part of our Black History Month program.  But after February, no one wanted to hear me speak of these saints (or anything else about Orthodoxy) because they didn’t see them in the Bible.  African-American Christians are overwhelmingly Protestant and firmly believe in the principle of Sola Scriptura, scripture alone.  The Lives of the Saints, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Menaions, Synaxarions; none of these mean anything to a people who believe that the Bible is the “Word of God.”

Simon of Cyrene icon

Simon of Cyrene is in the Bible.  He is often depicted as a black man.  His feast day is during Black History Month.  Nearly every black church has some sort of display on a bulletin board that month.  On that board are pictures of Oprah Winfrey (New Age), Malcolm X (Nation of Islam/Orthodox Islam), and others who are everything from African Methodist Episcopal (the oldest black American denomination) to those who are “spiritual, but not religious.”  We can offer icons of the first man of any race to carry the cross of our Lord to be a part of these cultural heroes.  We may generate interest in other black saints.  We may generate interest in other saints and in the Church.  Does that mean we will have 3,000 new converts from the African-American community, or only three?  Shame on us if we don’t try to evangelize with the tools we have been blessed with.  Shame on us if we don’t use the tools we have to find some common ground in this highly divisive society.

And I am not suggesting we do anything new or modern that has never been done in Orthodoxy before.  Saints Cyril & Methodius didn’t ignore the Slavs need for the Gospel to be preached in a language they could understand.  They created Church Slavonic.  Saints Herman and Innocent wait for the Native Alaskans to learn Slavonic before reaching out to them in love.  They translated the scriptures and other religious books in their native languages.  Painting icons of Martin Luther King Jr. or jazz great John Coltrane as saints is out of the question as they were not Orthodox and cannot be canonized as saints in the Church (although we do honor the great Civil Rights leader and can enjoy ‘Trane’s music).  But, Simon of Cyrene is a saint in our records and the most common holy book that black people have access to.  We may not know about his life before or after he carried the cross, which is why he is not prominent on our calendars.  But, we do know that he did it because the Holy Bible that our Church put together tells us he did.  For (we) Orthodox Christians to honor this feast day which is on a day of the month where (we) African-Americans celebrate (our) their heritage is an act of finding common ground.

#StSimonsDayFeb27

*Hieromonk Damascene, Father Seraphim Rose:  His Life and Works,  St. Herman of Alaska Press, Platina CA, pg. 471

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A Proposal to Celebrate Saint Simon of Cyrene Day, February 27th

http://sandersonicons.com/st~SimonEvery 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.

#StSimonsDayFeb27

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

****Mark 15:39