More than 20 years ago in December, when I was a graduate student, I was held up at gunpoint in a public phone booth, robbed of a book bag containing my students' and my own final papers, and sexually assaulted.
As often happens with trauma, the days that followed brought afflictions that seemed almost worse than the original crime. Everyone I knew responded that I "should be glad" I wasn't killed, that I was "lucky." I can't explain how deeply these responses hurt me, but the title of author Alice Sebold's account of her rape, Lucky, references the universality of my pain. To avoid it, I longed to retreat from my friends, my family, the world.
But my assaulters had my IDs and keys, so I had to live at a friend's house until I got my locks replaced and burglar bars installed. Dread of going outside further immobilized me—but I had classes and finals, so I couldn't stay indoors.
My students got angry when I explained, crying, that all record of their semester's work had been lost in the assault. For a final grade, I said, they could either show me all their previously graded work or retype their final paper. (Before personal computers, the assignments students handed in were usually their only copies.)
Then there were my own three papers: the 50-page, end-of-semester productions of graduate students in English. Like my students, I had no copies saved, and all my notes and drafts had been in the book bag with the finished paper.
When I explained my situation to the first professor, he didn't believe me and said the paper was still due in less than a week. The second professor gave me an extension until after Christmas break, effectively eliminating my planned trip to Boston to see my boyfriend.
I approached the third professor's office with special terror. He taught a large Renaissance drama course, one of the more difficult ones I ever took. Few of us had managed to ace the midterm, and we all but despaired of writing a 50-page paper that would interest him, much less impress him. When I told this man what happened, though, he cried. We shared a box of tissues in his cluttered office, not talking much, and he wouldn't hear of my rewriting the paper.
"You have an A," he said. "Just forget about it."
It was a spiritually defining moment for me. Even though I had no belief in God, the notion occurred to me nevertheless—some fond notion from my Catholic childhood, as I explained it to myself—that this man was Jesus. That Jesus himself sat there with his dwindling supply of Kleenexes, not telling me I was lucky or should be glad, but just crying for me, crying with me.
I don't remember that Christmas at all—where I ate Christmas dinner, if I received or gave any presents, certainly no commemoration of the birth that occasioned the season. For the atheist I was then, Christmas was just red and green, tinsel, carols, a turkey in the oven, cards sent and received.
Nevertheless, every December since then, as the semester rachets up into finals and the stores fill with Christmas, the miserable inheritance of that forgotten time overtakes me, and I struggle against a crippling, otherworldly gloom.
At those times, I like to consider the grim circumstances of Jesus' entry into our world. The price on his head. The other babies killed in Herod's attempt to find him. His poor family fleeing to Egypt, refugees of terror. Jesus' first human words to us were the cries of a newborn, lying in a feed trough in the dirty outbuilding where his mother had to give birth.
God seems most real to me when I imagine Jesus crying. At Lazarus' tomb, with Martha and Mary at his side, accusing, "Lord, if you had been here … " (John 11:21). In frustrated love for the children of Jerusalem, whom he longed to gather like chicks under his wings. In the garden. Abandoned on the cross. The violence of our world grieved the God of Genesis so much that he regretted making humans. "The earth is filled with violence because of them" (6:13), he told Noah, and "his heart was filled with pain" (6:6).
Amazingly, I worship a God who cries—as all newborns cry from the shock and pain of birth, from hunger, from need of comfort. As I, suffering unmerited wrongs, cried before my class of angry students. As that professor cried for me, surrounded by books and papers and empty Kleenex boxes.
At Christmas, we celebrate not only God's long-awaited answer to our own cries and groans in this violence-filled world, but also the comforting presence of a fellow sufferer who knows our pain firsthand—and cries with us.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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