“They forsook him and fled.” That is by far the most devastating sentence in the story of Our Lord’s Passion. It means that He was left lonely, bereft of the support of His closest friends. Even if they could do nothing, they were not standing beside Him, or standing up for Him, or offering any aid.
We also hear Jesus say, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me.” But that cry comes not from misery or complaint, but out of mercy; not from lack of help by God, but from their agreed upon determination that He needs to die in order to restore all creation. (St Leo) And so the Father forsaking His Son is not the same as what the disciples did. They fled in fear. The Father withdraws His help and abandons His Son into the hands of violent men so that He might be their Savior—the Savior and salvation of those who hate Him, abuse Him, kill Him.
Never do we hear, “Mother, why have you left Me.” Because the Holy Mother does not forsake or leave her Son. She is there, every step of the way. It seems as if she can’t do much, as if she doesn’t do much. But her presence, even from a distance, gives Our Lord strength to carry His burden, strength to face the ostracization, the abandonment, the rejection by His own.
The example of the Blessed Virgin teaches us how to support and reach out to those in need, even during this pandemic. And the non-example of the disciples also teaches us, if in a opposite manner.
Judas’ betrayal helps us see that we don’t always know the larger plan, and so should not take matters into our own hands when things aren’t going the way we think they should. St Peter’s denial helps us when our bravado is too quick to say that we’ll be there. And the fleeing of the disciples helps us see that we ought not let people alone, that we ought to reach out to them in their need. Even if we feel helpless, even if distance keeps us from being close, we can still reach out to the isolated, listen to the frustrated, talk things through with the anxious, and offer whatever material assistance we can in whatever way is best.
But does Jesus really need someone else to stand beside Him, to comfort Him, to support Him? He is the Son of God, the One who raised the dead, and who is able to call down a legion of angels. So why does Our Lord need help? And St Paul tells us that every person should “prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For every one shall bear his own burden.” (Gal 6.4-5) So why don’t we just take care of ourselves, and let others deal with their own issues?
That’s the thinking of the disciples whose fears overwhelm, who are too afraid to expose themselves to another, who have forgotten the words Our Lord prayed in the garden: ‘not what I want, not what I think is best, but Thy will be done.’
The disciples leaving Jesus to fend for Himself is wondrously contrasted with the example of St Simon of Cyrene. They choose to flee; he is compelled to stay. They will not help; he bears another’s burden, and so fulfills the law of Christ.
In His humanity—in the weak, vulnerable nature that He assumed for our salvation; in the mortal body that He graciously chose to knit to His divine nature, so that we could partake of and commune in His Godhead—in our flesh, as one of us, Our Lord needs someone to step forward and carry His cross.
And in this time, He needs us not only to take up our own cross, but also to assist another—the neighbor, the friend, the relative, the enemy.
For a moment, Jesus is the enemy to St Simon of Cyrene. For St Simon is forced to do what he hates, what he wants to flee from. St Simon is compelled to leave behind his two sons in order to help, support, and assist a stranger, one who is clearly not welcome.
Yet, in short order, the compulsory task becomes a privilege and a joy. Because St Simon did not flee into himself. He stood with Jesus; or, to say it better, Jesus stood with Him, extending His love and embracing Simon with the Lord’s own strength.
And drawing on the Lord’s strengthening mercy, Simon proceeds to carry the Lord’s cross. He walks with the Lord, carrying the weight, up the hill, to the place of death.
This saintly man reveals how Our Lord’s suffering can strengthen us; how His Passion can move us outside of ourselves; how it gives us a willingness and a merciful spirit for the good of another. This saintly man demonstrates how bearing with another is actually helping to carry the Lord’s cross; by which we are saved since His cross contains nothing to fear, nothing to flee from—but every hope and strength, both in these days and in the days to come.