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by Al Maxey

Issue #751 ------- July 3, 2018
Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No, there's a cross for everyone,
And there's a cross for me.

Thomas Shepherd [1665-1739]

Christ's Cyrenian Cross-Bearer
A Reflective Study of Simon of Cyrene

We have all heard and sung, probably more times than we can count, the familiar old hymn "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?" It was written by Thomas Shepherd (1665-1739) originally as a poem, and it first appeared in 1693 in a collection of poems titled "Penitential Cries." The first stanza of the poem that would later be set to music and become a standard in the church read a bit differently than what we are familiar with today. As originally penned, it read: "Must Simon bear the cross alone, and other saints be free? Each saint of Thine shall find his own, and there is one for me." The person to whom Thomas Shepherd referred, of course, was Simon of Cyrene, a man mentioned briefly in each of the synoptic gospel accounts. John makes no mention of Simon at all, writing instead that Jesus "went out bearing His own cross to the place called Golgotha" (John 19:17). Some see this as a contradiction between John's account and that of the synoptic writers, but more about this later. The writers who do mention Simon give very little information about him. Notice the three references: Matthew 27:32 - "And as they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross." Mark 15:21 - "And they pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear His cross." Luke 23:26 - "And when they led Him away, they laid hold of one Simon of Cyrene, coming in from the country, and placed on him the cross to carry behind Jesus." As you can see, each of these three versions is somewhat different with respect to certain details, each revealing something unique.

As we ponder and reflect upon this incident that occurred that morning as Jesus was being led to His crucifixion, a number of observations come quickly to mind. We behold the humanity of the Messiah: the physical and emotional distress He was experiencing, the abused condition of His body, and the resultant weakness evidenced in His collapse under the weight of the cross. As Jesus began His journey to the place of execution outside the city gates, He "went out bearing His own cross," as John correctly points out. It was customary for the person being crucified to carry his own cross (literally: the heavy wooden crosspiece known as the "patibulum") that would later be affixed to the vertical beam at the site of the execution. Although Jesus is often depicted in paintings as dragging the entire cross, most scholars believe the more accurate depiction is this crossbeam tied to His shoulders. Rarely did one ever drag the entire cross. Although the Son of God, Jesus was also a son of man: He was human, and thus subject to the same hurts and failings of the flesh that you and I experience. Jesus simply did not have the physical strength to carry this heavy piece of the cross to Golgotha. Yes, He "went out," states John, from the place of His sentencing "bearing His own cross," but He only had the strength to make it past the city gate. When He collapsed, the guards escorting Him to the site of the execution found someone to carry the cross the remainder of the way. That "someone" was a man from Cyrene named Simon.

In order to better understand this event, there are several things in the various accounts that need to be pointed out. First, this man named Simon is said to be from a place called Cyrene. Most people probably couldn't tell you where Cyrene is located, and they might be rather surprised to learn that it is in northern Africa, and that this area today is known as Libya. In the first century, the city of Cyrene was the capital of the Roman province of Cyrenaica. Just a few miles to the southwest of Cyrene is a city known to us today as Benghazi (a city that has been in the news a lot in recent years). Simon, therefore, was African. It is assumed (and I stress this word) that Simon was a proselyte to Judaism and that he may have been in Jerusalem for Passover. All of this is speculation, however. "His name suggests, but does not prove, that he was a Jew" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 575]. The Pulpit Commentary characterizes Simon as "an African Jew" [vol. 16: Mark, part 2, p. 337]. Yes, he was African, for that is where Cyrene was, but there is nothing in the biblical text that suggests he was a Jew. This is merely assumed because he was in the area of Jerusalem during Passover. He could very well have been there for other reasons, however. We just don't know. About the best we can say is: "Simon may have been in Jerusalem for the Passover" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 8, p. 516]. It is also possible he was simply in the area on business. We are told by Mark and Luke that he was on his way to Jerusalem "from the country," which some scholars feel indicates he was conducting business outside of Jerusalem, perhaps in a nearby city, and was on his way back to Jerusalem "from the country." Did he live in Jerusalem, or was he just visiting? "Whether this Simon had become a resident of Jerusalem, or was a visitor at the Passover, it is impossible to decide" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, "Word Studies from the Greek New Testament," vol. 1, p. 281]. All we know for sure is that this man named Simon, who was from Cyrene in northern Africa, was on his way to Jerusalem "from the country" when he got caught up in the procession of a crowd following a man being led to the site of his crucifixion. Some say he was a disciple of Jesus, some say he was Jewish, some say he was well-known to the followers of Jesus, others say he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and was seized by the guards and pressed into service as a cross-bearer. All of this is nothing but speculation, for the biblical text says absolutely nothing about any of it.

An interesting question arises at this point in our study: Why was this man singled out to carry the cross for Christ Jesus? Why him? "Why, we ask, out of the whole crowd that was streaming to and fro on the way to the place of execution, did the multitude seize on him?" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 174]. The Scriptures indicate there was a rather vocal crowd of people following along to witness this execution. It was also the time of Passover, and there would have been many people in the area for the festivities. "Soldiers would march the prisoner through crowds of spectators; crowds normally gathered to watch executions, especially if near the city" [Dr. Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 677]. "Executions always took place outside of the city ... and the prisoners were generally led through the most populous streets; and the place of execution would be near a highway where many people would congregate" [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 1104]. "The Synoptics tell us that the soldiers took a man from the crowd" [The Communicator's Commentary: Matthew, p. 311]. "A great company of people and women followed, bewailing and lamenting His fate" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, p. 538]. So what made the guards choose this man from among this great company of people? "There must have been something that drew the attention of the soldiers to Simon" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 635]. It wasn't a random encounter; Simon wasn't the only person in sight.

The Roman soldiers were most certainly not going to carry this heavy crossbeam for this Jewish "criminal" who was about to die. That would have been beneath them, in their view. No Jew would have volunteered to even touch this cross, much less carry it, especially during the Passover season, as this would, in their view, make them unclean. Obviously, Jesus was in no condition to continue. Thus, someone had to be chosen. Who would that be? The guards entrusted with this prisoner would have to seek out a person appropriate to the task, for "so shameful a thing was the cross, that no Jew or Roman citizen could be induced to carry one" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 627]. It would have to be a person "recognizable as a stranger, with whom liberties might be taken" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 328]. In this large gathering of persons headed for Golgotha, one person stood out; as the soldiers cast their eyes upon the people around them, one man drew their attention. In some way, most likely by his appearance, he was most clearly different. He was a foreigner, a stranger. Was it the way he dressed? Possibly. But, I am convinced it was more. I am thoroughly convinced that he caught their attention that day in that place because he was African -- i.e., he was a black man! Racial bias is not a modern social and personal dysfunction, it has always been evident among men. The black races have especially been victims of racial discrimination and affliction, and the choosing of Simon of Cyrene may reflect that attitude among those seeking someone to "do the dirty work."

Carrying a cross to the place of execution "was a reproach, and none would do it but by compulsion" [Dr. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Thus, when Simon was spotted in the crowd, he was singled out, and he was then "laid hold of" and "pressed into service." This is a word of Persian origin, a military term, signifying that one is "compelled by force" to do the will of another. Perhaps it was done "in contempt of Simon ... done in insult to this stranger of Cyrene" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 607]. "The efforts of Christian piety to make Simon's act a deed of sympathetic magnanimity are invalid. Simon had no choice, and the text says nothing about his sympathy for Jesus" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 575]. There is no indication Simon was even a Jew (except his name was a common one among Jews), and there was certainly no evidence he was a follower of Jesus. He was a foreigner from Africa, a black man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The soldiers were searching for just such a person, and they found him. In fact, we are told in Matthew 27:32 that "as they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon." They didn't just stumble upon him; this wasn't a chance meeting. They were looking for someone like him, and when they "found" him, they laid hold of him and pressed him into service, most likely against his will. The Greek word translated "found" is "heurisko," and it means "to detect, discover, recognize." It means to discover something as a result of seeking it. Jesus used this very word in His Sermon on the Mount when He said, "Seek and you will find" (Matthew 7:7). In one of His parables He spoke of a slave who "went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii, and he seized him" (Matthew 18:28). Here is another case of searching, finding, seizing (just as with Simon). In the Greek lexicons it is made clear that the primary meaning of this word is: "After seeking, to find, discover, come upon; figuratively: of intellectual discovery based upon reflection, observation, examination, or investigation" [Drs. Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 324-325]. Dr. Henry Thayer writes: "After searching, to find a thing sought; to find by inquiry, thought, examination, scrutiny, observation" [Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, p. 261-262].

As you search through the paintings of this event over the centuries, many will show Simon as a black man. However, many will not. Some commentators, especially those in the past few hundred years, make a point of stating emphatically that "Simon was NOT a Negro!" No way! Can't have it. They don't say why; they just insist that it could not be so. Sadly, racial bias infests even those presuming to speak for the Lord about spiritual matters. "A black man touching and carrying the cross of Jesus Christ?! NEVER!!" I actually saw one discussion on the Internet where a person from one of the southern states in America said it was hard to deny that Simon was black, but then he pointed to Luke 23:26 to show that this black man at least "knew his place," for it says they "placed on him the cross to carry behind Jesus." "Luke 23:26 seems to show that Simon only bore the 'after' part of the cross, the lighter end, which had been dragging on the ground" [Dr. B.W. Johnson, The People's New Testament with Explanatory Notes, p. 155]. There are actually some paintings depicting Jesus carrying the forward part of the cross, while Simon brings up the rear carrying the trailing end. I guess some bigots can tolerate a black man providing this service to Jesus, as long as he does so "from the back of the bus!" Utterly disgusting!! Frankly, knowing the love and acceptance of our Lord for ALL men, it would not surprise me in the least to think that God's Spirit took a hand in bringing Simon to this point in time and place for this very purpose! Jesus made a point to associate intimately with those whom the world rejected, so why not send that visual message here on the way to Golgotha as well?!! "What seems to the soldiers and to the mob a degradation, is to become an honorable and happy memory to Simon, whose family is destined in after years to hold a high place in the regard of the Christian community, and whose name is henceforth to be linked with that of the Redeemer by this sacred and touching association" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16: Mark, part 2, p. 313].

I thought Dr. Craig S. Keener made an excellent observation on this: "The soldiers must draft a bystander to do what the disciples were unwilling to do. Matthew's primary point is striking, reinforcing the negative portrayal of the disciples his audience has experienced in his recitation of the Gethsemane tradition. While Jesus suffered for them, His own disciples, who should have borne His cross, abandoned Him, forcing the Romans to impress a foreigner" [A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 676]. There is no evidence that Simon objected or made a fuss. He rose to the occasion, even though it was an unpleasant one, and even though it may perhaps have been intended as a personal insult to his own identity. "The cross was a very troublesome unwieldy load: but he that carried it a few minutes, had the honor to have his name upon the record in the book of God, though otherwise an obscure person; so that, wherever this gospel is preached, there shall this be told for a memorial to him" [Dr. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. The reality is: when all others fled, this foreigner did not (one can't help but think of the healing of the ten lepers; only "the foreigner" came back to say "thanks" ... or the Samaritan who rendered aid, while the religious elite of the Jews wouldn't stop to help the victim at the side of the road). "Fix attention on him as the one and only man who helped Jesus in the time of His sorest need. From His arrest to His death, no apostle helped Him, no disciple helped Him; He was alone. This unknown Simon breaks the loneliness, and shares with Him the burden of His cross!" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 635].

"It is thought that this Simon became a Christian and that his two sons, Alexander and Rufus, became well-known Christians in Rome" [The Communicator's Commentary: Matthew, p. 311]. Mark, in his account, writes, "Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus)" (Mark 15:21). Apparently, these were well known brothers in the Christian community. In Romans 16:13 Paul writes, "Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord." Although we don't know for certain, this may be the same person mentioned by Mark. Likewise, there is an Alexander mentioned in Acts 19:33f, yet we also have no solid evidence that this was the person mentioned by Mark. We may have one further insight into the identity of Simon from Acts 13:1 -- "Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul." Saul would later become the apostle Paul, and Barnabas would be his traveling companion on some of his missionary journeys. As for Simeon, the name "Simon is a contraction for Simeon" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 628], and so it is possible it could be the same Simon that helped carry the cross of Christ. Some feel this is given validity by the fact his nickname was "Niger," which is Latin for "black." "Simeon Niger (a Latin loan word meaning 'black') may have been from Africa. He was possibly the Simon from Cyrene whose sons Alexander and Rufus were later known to be among the Christians at Rome. If he was made to carry Jesus' cross on the way to Golgotha, what a story he would have had to tell!" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 416]. "Simon, a Cyrenian, may possibly be identified with the 'Niger' of Acts 13:1" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 634]. The noted biblical scholar, Dr. F. F. Bruce, wrote, "Who was 'Simeon that was called Niger'? Why was he given a Latin nickname? The reason for the nickname, apart from its Latinity, is at any rate hardly to be doubted: he was presumably of dark complexion. In that case one begins to wonder if he was that 'Simon of Cyrene, ... the father of Alexander and Rufus' who carried the cross of Jesus. Mark mentions Alexander and Rufus presumably because they were well known in the Roman church when he wrote his gospel. One may speculate further. Among the Roman Christians to whom Paul sends greetings in Romans 16 is one 'Rufus, the chosen in the Lord'" [Commentary on the Book of the Acts, p. 260].

If, as I truly believe after having researched this in some depth, Simon of Cyrene was a black man from Africa (as was the eunuch from Ethiopia - Acts 8:26f), what might be the Lord's message to us all in light of this divinely preserved account? What should we learn from this? Although there are clearly many lessons to be perceived here, I can't help but believe that this may well be a divinely orchestrated encounter for the purpose of speaking to the godlessness that is racial prejudice. It was no accident, in my view, that Simon just happened to be at that place at that time. He was there for a reason. He was there to place his hands upon the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, perhaps even to touch the flesh of our beloved Savior, and to declare, in spite of what humans might think, that our God is color, culture and country blind! ALL are called to walk with His Son; ALL are called to share in His sufferings as well as His victory; ALL are called to take up their cross and follow Him. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are ALL one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). When the great multitude of the redeemed of all time assemble before the Throne of God one day, there will be no discrimination in the makeup of that crowd, for our Lord purchased with His blood men and women "from every tribe and tongue and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9; cf. 7:9). It is time for God's children to show the same lack of racial, cultural and national prejudice as their Father! It is time to lay aside our religious and societal factions and truly evidence in our attitudes and actions the reality that we are ALL blood-bought, and thus a redeemed Family. The Lord prayed just hours before His passion, and just hours before meeting face-to-face this black man from Africa, "Father, I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for ALL those who believe in Me through their word; that they may ALL be ONE ... that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me" (John 17:20-21). May it be so!


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Al, I just read your article titled "Confused Churchianity: Deadly Delusions about the Church" (Reflections #750). I'm not sure if this fits, but this passage of Scripture (Philippians 1:15-18) sort of reminded me of your own battles with these modern-day Pharisees. This epistle by Paul has always been one of my personal favorites. Bless you, brother, and your efforts.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

What a powerful article, brother! Those first couple of paragraphs of "Confused Churchianity" got me all fired up and shouting "Amen!!" We have indeed lost sight of the CHRIST in our fallible focus and ceaseless squabbles over "the church." When our Lord prayed to the Father in John 17, He said that He would give eternal life to all whom God had given Him. And then He said, "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (vs. 3). Eternal life is in knowing God and His Son! It is not in fruitless efforts at trying to prove which church is THE church! It is not in endless arguments about worship, fellowship, Bible versions, Communion, baptism, women's roles, and so forth. Jesus is THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life! If only we would all invest more time in knowing HIM. Keep preaching, brother!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, just wanted to let you know that I too have had debates with Hugh Fulford, and though I love him as a brother, I sadly just finally had to give up trying to reason with him on the "denominational" issue. Too many of us have been blinded and brainwashed so much over the years that we, like the Pharisees, fail to see Christ as being above all else. Thank you for your comments in your Reflections.

From a Reader in Alabama:

I just purchased the Kindle edition of your book "One Bread, One Body," and really look forward to reading it. My daughter just finished reading your book "Immersed By One Spirit," and she is definitely singing its praises. I had purchased it on Kindle earlier and read it. Thank you, again, for sharing your spiritual journey with us, and for sharing your wealth of knowledge and understanding. Blessings to you and yours, and I pray you all enjoy a very Happy 4th of July!

From a New Reader in Texas:

Al, would you please subscribe me to your Reflections? For a number of years, a dear friend and brother-in-Christ, Dan Smith (who is now deceased), would send me a few of your articles that he thought were particularly poignant or specific to some discussion we were having at the time. I appreciate and value your deeply spiritual and Scriptural approach to the many areas of questionable interpretation of the Scriptures. God is definitely using you in His service and to His glory! Blessings!

From a Reader in Texas:

Greetings from Houston, Al. A buddy of mine bought me a twice-daily reader by the great Charles Spurgeon. His June 23 morning session starts with the passage from Hosea 7:8 which says that Israel is a "cake not turned." From there he expounds: "A cake not turned is soon burnt on the side nearest the fire, and although no man can have too much religion, there are some who seem burnt with bigoted zeal for that part of truth which they have received, or are charred with a vain-glorious Pharisaic ostentation of those religious performances with suit their humor. The perceived appearance of superior sanctity frequently accompanies a total absence of all vital godliness." Good grief!! Is that not a rather apt description of the very attitude you exposed in your current Reflections on "Confused Churchianity"?! Best to you and yours.

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, I just finished reading "Confused Churchianity" on your Facebook page. Very insightful (as usual), and it likely lit some hair on fire! I've forwarded it to some family and friends for their consideration. God bless!

From a Reader in Virginia:

I appreciate very much that your Reflections are so conveniently organized on your Reflections Page by date, topic and biblical text. This means that I can read and reread, going back at any time and easily finding what I'm looking for. Thank you, Al, for years of thought-provoking messages!

From a Reader in California:

I just read your excellent article on cremation ("May Christians Be Cremated? In Search of the Biblical Perspective" - Reflections #72) which you wrote back in 2003. As you know, I preached in Churches of Christ for over 30 years, and am now a part of our family owned mortuary and crematory. The cremation rate today is almost 75%, mainly due to costs and the fact that cemeteries are filling up fast. In fact, some cemeteries out here in California no longer accept burials of any kind. In the LA area, lots tend to start at around $10,000. Though your article is 15 years old, it is outstanding. Thank you!

From a Reader in Texas:

Once again, you were right on target with your message about "Confused Churchianity." I love that in the readers' section of your last Reflections the author from California said you were the successor to Carl Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett, whom I loved and read faithfully for many years. You have certainly taken their place in my reading schedule as well. I have said before and will say again, that if Jesus gave His life just for those very few people left in the very conservative Churches of Christ group, then His mission was a miserable failure!! These people love to quote: "...there will be few that find it." Out of the billions and billions of people who have lived and will live on this earth, the number in this tiny group (who think they alone are the "few" - the only ones saved) is so minuscule that it doesn't even register. Al, I am so grateful for you and your relentless pursuit of Truth for all people who embrace the message of grace that the Bible imparts. The real Truth is that Jesus died for ALL who put their faith in Him. HE is the Truth, the Way, and the Life! Keep getting that message out there, my dear friend. You have made such a huge difference!! Blessings to you today and always.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Lord knows the extent of the religious divisiveness that a proper understanding of this topic would bring to an end. Keep it up, brother! Sometimes I have to wonder if the only reason some of these legalists wish to maintain their sectarian "one true church" mentality is so they can continue to have an audience to which to speak every week!

From a Minister in New Zealand:

WOW!! Another great article ("Confused Churchianity")!! Herein is part of our problem: We have duplicated the Galatian heresy in many respects. Why? Because we want to be religiously PC, a part of the "establishment" -- it is a "status quo" mentality. We are scared to truly walk by faith. We have got so far away from simple trusting faith that it just isn't funny! Our faith is in our obedience (which infers "law"), rather than in God and His grace. I constantly hear such statements as: "Is it possible to have a personal relationship with God?" Wow! Has it really gone this far?! There is much more I could say, but this is sufficient. God bless you, Al. Again, another GREAT issue of your Reflections!

From an Author in Arizona:

Al, my brother! I finally found time to read and digest your latest ("Confused Churchianity"). As usual, it was very informative. I've received Hugh Fulford's "material" for years. He and I have even exchanged views on numerous occasions. Hugh seems to be one among many within the Church of Christ sect whose mind is closed to any new enlightenment relative to "the Lord's church" (as he calls it). I grew up in that sect, but defected from it decades ago, as well as all other sects and "non-denominational" entities. I did NOT defect from my brothers and sisters in Christ, though (who ARE the church) -- I deserted the system that has them enslaved. When someone today asks me my "religion," I simply say, "I don't have a religion, nor am I in love with a church. I have a strong, healthy relationship with a Man called Jesus. Religions and churches cannot get us to heaven. But Jesus can and will. If we have such a relationship, everything else will fall into place. But, if we do not have such a relationship, everything will fall apart." Blessings, brother!

From a Reader in Pennsylvania:

Al, keep up the good work! We are occasionally on a slightly different page, but I truly love your candor and courage! May our God keep using you! By the way, the late Bishop of London (who left Rome following Vatican 2) said, as you have so often, "the Church is NOT an institution, but a community of believers."

From an Author/Publisher in Nevada:

Your last paragraph (in your article "Confused Churchianity") pretty well scores Hugh Fulford. He's in a fog concerning what the "church" is all about.

From an Author in Kentucky:

Al, thanks for your Reflections article "Confused Churchianity." I have given much thought to this subject over the past 25 years. I used to uphold the "one true church" idea (that WE were IT) until I began to see how those who believe this do a "fast shuffle" or "shift gears" when talking about the subject. In my opinion, the main reason this thinking exists is because of the notion of "restorationism" -- the idea that it is up to human beings to "restore" the church to its original state of pristine purity. What us mortals seem not to be able to grasp is that restoration is God's business. The whole sweep of history is toward that end and God is in control of that. Restoration is about restoring fallen man to a relationship with God. When that is done you have "the church." You know restoration has taken place when people believe in Jesus and when you see the fruit of the Spirit in their lives!

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