I have shared previously that my grandfather and two of his brothers served in the British Army during world war II.
My Grandfather served as an officer mainly in North Africa. He was a land-surveyor by profession, and it was in this capacity that he served in the military, going ahead of the army to help map out the terrain that they were traversing and also engaging in battle on. His unit was initially with the SA forces that drove the Italians out of Ethiopia, and then served with the 8th Army in the North African desert. After Rommel was defeated by the 8th Army under Montgomery his unit was transferred to the American 5th Army that fought its way up through Italy. Their troop ships were attacked by Stuka dive bombers crossing from North Africa to Italy although fortunately my Grandfather’s ship wasn't hit.
But my grandfather’s youngest brother St Clair was not as fortunate. He served in the RAF as a navigator in a RAF Coastal Command plane that was responsible for doing protective patrols around the British Isles. On 27th December 1943, just two days after Christmas, his plane and the entire crew went missing, lost without trace while on patrol. Neither the plane nor any bodies were ever recovered. In the end it was believed that they had been shot down by a German submarine using its deck gun.
About two years ago my brother and his family went to visit the farm near Cape Town where my grandfather had grown up. While staying in the guest house they had opportunity to see some of the old letters that had been kept by the family. In and amongst them, they found a poem that was written by my great grandmother in which she was clearly seeking to process the sense of loss and grief at the loss of her son, who had gone to war, and had never come home. The poem is entitled:
St Clair 27 December 1943
Misery! She waited heavy eyed
In Pain. Benumbed. No pride.
Sustained. She had not even tried.
Shattered and torn, to ride, driven with storm.
In fearful wonder
Nevertheless, and wretched, to that pure calm
God and his angels provide.
It is a poem that vividly describes the pain and grief of all those family members who had to deal with the trauma of losing a loved one in war, often in a different part of the world, and not even being able to receive the remains to give a proper burial, or to be able to find some sense of closure.
Never receiving the remains of one’s loved one must make grieving particularly difficult. I can imagine that the mind may wish to play tricks, with one always left wondering if it is true. Did he or she really die. What if it wasn’t really true. Is it possible that they might still one day come home. How difficult to grieve and find closure under those circumstances.
The musician and song writer Sting captures this experience very vividly in his 1987 song: They Dance Alone. The song was written as a protest song written to express the grief of the many thousands of grieving mothers and wives in Chile in South America when the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was responsible for the disappearance and the murder of thousands of people between 1973 and 1990. They just went missing. The song refers to the mourning of the Chilean women who dance the Cueca, the national dance of Chile, dancing alone with photos of their disappeared loved ones in their hands.
Loved ones who went missing, never to be seen again. Missing.
The experience of my great-grandmother was not unique. I understand that in the course of the First World War at least 500 000 soldiers from the British Empire were missing in action. That would amount to at least 500 000 mothers left grieving like my great-grandmother let alone the many fathers, wives, brothers, sisters and children. I couldn’t find comparable numbers for World War II, but I can imagine they would have numbered in the 10’s of thousands if not the 100’s of thousands.
In the Bible, one catches a glimpse of the trauma of losing someone, and not being able to find the body and not knowing where to lay or direct one’s grief. In John’s Gospel, it is part of the Resurrection narratives. Jesus has been tried, sentenced to death and killed by the Roman Empire in one of the most cruel ways known to humanity. His body has been hastily buried according to Jewish custom by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Early in the morning while it is still dark, we read that Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, and finds that the stone had been removed and the body of Jesus is missing. One catches a sense of the grief and loss as she runs back to Peter in a panic saying “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
The same sense of loss and bewilderment is expressed as she encounters two angels seated where Jesus body had been. “Woman, why are you crying?” they ask her. “They have taken my Lord away” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him”. Missing!
For Mary, it is not just that she doesn’t know where the body of Jesus is, but without the body of Jesus, she doesn’t know where to direct her grief.
In the passage from John 20, one gets the sense of Mary flailing about, disorientated because the body of her Lord cannot be found. But for Mary, within just a few verses, her grief and confusion finds resolution and closure in the discovery that Christ is Risen, but for hundred’s of thousands of women in this country across the two great wars, there was no easy resolution and no easy closure.
On Remembrance Sunday, we mostly, quite rightly pause to reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives on behalf of their fellow countryman. But beneath the sacrifice of each of those whose lives were lost, is perhaps an equally great sacrifice of those left behind, left flailing about trying to make sense of a life that no longer makes sense in the absence of a loved one.
In the Gospel Story, the Eternal, Risen Christ asks Mary: “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
How many hundreds of thousands of women, mothers, wives, sisters, along with fathers and brothers have scanned the crowds looking, hoping against hope, to see the face of their missing family member coming home, but to no avail.
The poem of my great-grandmother speaks of the devastation of losing a loved one, missing in action, and not knowing where his body has been laid.
And yet the poem is not without some sense of hope or comfort.
She speaks of being driven with storm, in fearful wonder, to that pure calm that God and his angels provide. And yet it is not a calm that erases her wretched state. It is not a peace that erases the emptiness and the loss. They seem to sit side by side, the peace along with the storm. The pure calm along with the wretchedness of grief.
I wonder if that is why the Apostle Paul calls it the Peace that passes understanding. It passes understanding, because it does not make sense. It passes understanding because it is a peace that does not remove the pain and the grief. It is a peace that passes understanding because it is felt and experienced even in the midst of the storm. That sense that though this world has been torn apart by an unresolvable grief and loss, that can never be undone, in another dimension of life that mysteriously intersects with this one, there is an eternal realm, where, in the words of Julian of Norwich, all is well, where all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. It is that same light of eternity that Mary glimpses when she realises it is the voice of the Risen Christ who calls her by name, saying “Mary!”. Amen.