The scenes from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Nigeria … the list could go on, the list is almost endless – but in so many of the pictures that we see in news reports, on social media and in our papers are of women, grieving, weeping, inconsolable women. They are often pictured crying for the men, the children they have lost. It is agonizing watching these scenes, looking at the pictures, hearing the cries, the wails. These are women feeling the pain of what their community, their nation, their family is going through.
We were staggered the other day to hear a report from India that an elderly nun had been raped in her convent by men who had broken in to rob the sisters of their possessions. They robbed them of the things they owned and then they robbed her of so much of her dignity, robbed her of so much of her vocation and the life she leads as one consecrated to Christ.
We know nothing of the 200 Nigerian girls taken by Boko Haram. What is their life like now? What abuse are they suffering, what hope do they have?
We know that the abuse of women is now an all too regular part of warfare, the gang rapes, the mutilation, inflicting scars on women which will last forever. Violence against women seems to be getting worse and so much more a feature of how war is waged than before and the violence against the person, the sexual violence against the person, is only one of the consequences of war that women have to suffer.
We watch them weeping, we hear their wails and we weep and wail with them, with our sisters and with the young girls, their daughters, who they hold so close to shield them from the violence that lurks around the corner.
Women pay a heavy price in our societies and have to bear so much of the pain.
One of the most terrible episodes in the gospels is the slaughter of the innocents. It took place, according to St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2.16-18) as a consequence of the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Christ in Bethlehem. Herod, the king, feeling that his power was under threat from this pretender to his crown, goes out of his way to get rid of the potential challenge. The order goes out and as it says in the gospel
He sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. (Matthew 2.16)
St Matthew, throughout his gospel, always seeks to show how the events in the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus are the fulfilment of prophecies made to the people that we find in the Old Testament. As he tells this story of the slaughter of all these babies he quotes from the Prophet Jeremiah
Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.(Jeremiah 31-15)
Rachel, refusing to be consoled. Why should she stop weeping – for our convenience, because it discomforts us? ‘Do stop crying’ we say, trying to make it better, trying to make it stop. Someone crying in front of us can be very difficult and especially for men. We want it to stop, we feel that we have to stop it. What good will the tears do? Better to face up, clear sighted, to reality than let what we see be obscured by our tears. ‘Do stop crying.’
Alongside what we now know as the Via Dolorosa were a group of women, weeping and wailing. St Luke in his gospel makes mention of this as part of what happened and here it is as one of the Stations on the journey that we are making to Calvary with Jesus. We don’t know who these women were. Were they always here, in this spot, on execution day? Did they do this professionally, like the mutes who used to follow in Victorian funeral processions?
Or were they there specifically for Jesus? Had they been part of that crowd which had welcomed Jesus into the city on Palm Sunday, had cheered and sung as he entered? Had they then been in the square before the Judgement Seat with those who were demanding Jesus’ blood? Were the cries ‘Crucify him, crucify him’ still ringing in their ears? Had they cried out with the crowd, or had they remained silent then? Whoever they are, now they weep and Jesus stops and speaks to them.
A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.”For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’ (Luke 23.27-31)
‘Weep for yourselves and for your children’ he says to them. It transforms this scene. They may cry for Jesus but Jesus directs them to cry for their children, for their sisters, now, today, as much as at every period of history in which women have carried the burden of the implications of hate and cruelty and inhumanity.
No one is quite sure what the final verse means, the green wood, the dry wood. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that women represent that green fruitful, hopeful part of humanity, the source from which new life springs, the fruitfulness of wombs, the new possibility as life emerges. And these women, green with possibility, weep at the dryness that they see as life itself is being dragged off to be killed. When life is dead what then will happen?
But for me, now, at this time in history, these weeping women represent all the women, the world over, young and old, who weep at the brutality of life. ‘Weep for yourselves and for your children’ says Jesus to them and those of us who are men must hear the cry of women, and stop, as Jesus did, and hear and weep.
The poet Phineas Fletcher (1580-1650) wrote ‘A Litany’ which we offer as a prayer as with the women of the world we stand.
DROP, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace:
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.