My partner told me the tale of their grandfather Cyril’s experience of being a prisoner of war in Changi Jail,Java, held for a long four years by the Japanese. It was a cruel and brutal regime. The 1957 film Bridge over the River Kwai, was acclaimed for its portrayal of the regime that POWs lived and sadly died under. Cyril’s story was moving beyond measure, he was a clergyman in the RAF and whilst in the camp he pastorally cared for those held alongside him. He baptised, celebrated the Eucharist with them, and he conducted their funerals, many many funerals. Yet there is another half of the story, because back home, Cyril’s wife did not know if she was still his wife or had become his widow. He was listed as missing in action for all that time. It was not until the liberation of the camp that the London Illustrated News, published a photograph of a gaunt RAF clergyman ministering within a camp on Java, and a member of the family took the paper to his wife and said, “is that not Cyril?” that she could believe she was still a wife and not yet a widow.
Today we remember those who have died in wars and conflicts over the years. Those who went away and never came home. We remember those who have come home, but are not the men and women who went away to serve in theatres of war and conflict across the globe. And today we also remember those left behind. The widows, which in this time of modernity includes men. When we hear the term widow it is easy to conjure up images of Royal Wootton Bassett and the numerous repatriation ceremonies, coffin after coffin being driven through the streets over the years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet there are other widows. Those from the world wars for whom there was no body to bring home, because bodies literally sank into the mud of the battlefields. For those buried as unknown in graves across the world. For those like Cyril’s wife who live in a limbo as a widow yet with the faintest hope that those listed as missing in action, would be found and returned home.
There are those whose loved ones return and yet either through physical, mental or spiritual injury are changed beyond recognition, and so their partners are bereaved of the person who went away, widows in a very real sense.
And today on this remembrance Sunday the gospel reading draws our attention to another a widow. We are told that the Sadducees, who were a well educated, sophisticated, influential and wealthy sect at the time of Jesus. Who did not believe in immortality, spirits or angels, give to Jesus a sort of riddle -there’s a woman who marries seven times – and just not seven times, but seven brothers, in succession. Each brother dies, leaving her a widow. Last of all the woman died also. Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife does she become? For all seven had her as wife.” First of all their question is absurd; it is similar to asking, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” or “did Adam have a belly-button?” An absurd question isn’t valid just because it is directed to God. The Sadducees thought that if there was such a thing as resurrection, it was just this same life lived forever. Jesus corrects their misunderstanding of resurrection life by showing it is life of an entirely different order. That in the age to come, our lives will be lived on a completely different principle, in a dimension that we can’t imagine. We know it won’t be the same as what we know on earth, but we can’t say for sure what it will all be like in heaven - other than to know that we won’t be disappointed.
Jesus responds to their riddle in such a way that they have to admit he answered well, so well that they no longer dared to ask him another question. But I am left with questions; let’s look passed the riddle and passed the Sadducees to the object in the middle of the riddle, because that is what the woman, the widow would have been in those days. A piece of property to be married off and then married on and on, seven times. How did she feel? Was she bereaved, frightened, alone? Where I wonder was her hope? Did she in her grief, hope that she would be cared for and loved again. Did she believe in a God who would keep promises and enact justice beyond the boundaries of this world. To be once widowed is awful but seven times, what kept her going. I would like to think it is as St Paul says “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but when the end comes, “we will see face to face. Now, I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
The Christian dispensation acknowledges that we do not know, we do not have control, we are not in charge. But what we can have, in the worst of times is hope. Hope that beyond death it is not simply the continuation of what now is.
In my time as a military police officer I have experienced violence and conflict around me that has made me think I might very soon be face to face with the answers. I have been frightened beyond measure and enraged at the injustice and brutality of humanity. I was a witness to the genocide taking place in Bosnia when I served there in the early nineties, and in those darkest of times I had to hope that what was happening around us would stopand that there would be a better world when the fighting ended. I was transported back to that place when the news broke of the discovery of a mass war grave that had a potential 1000 bodies in north – west Bosnia. 1000 people buried, countless relatives left wondering if they are wives or widows. Have those left behind kept hope?
Over the last years I have attended and led the funerals of my regimental friends and family. I have spoken to those ‘widows’ left behind, I have been to see friends with life changing injuries and spent time with their widows. What have I learned, what have I seen?
I have learnt that widows have hope. It comes in many forms and guises; some hope that those they loved did not give their lives in vain. There is hope that those killed and maimed in action have left behind a world which is slightly better because of their sacrifice. There are hopes that injuries of body, mind and soul will heal, that one day the person who went to war will hopefully return. For some their hope is in their children, for others there is only the hope that they will meet again with their loved ones beyond this world in a better place.
In the darkest of times, at those moments in individuals lives when it seems all is lost, even if just in a glimmer we can see hope then we catch a glimpse of the knowing fully that St Paul spoke of.
I return to Cyril, in the darkest of places as a prisoner of a brutal regime, who in his ministry offered the chance to desperate frightened soldiers a glimmer of a world in which life will rise out of the ashes of crushed hopes and dreams.
This remembrance tide remember the dead but don’t forget the hope of the living.