Reclaiming Christmas for Abuse Survivors (Part 1): Leaning into Suffering

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For the past several Christmases, I have gone back to a Christmas meditation called “St. Linus the Evangelist”. In this piece, Allison Backous-Troy writes beautifully about why A Charlie Brown Christmas has always spoken to her the truth about Christmas in the midst of the chaos and pain of her home life. In the film, Charlie Brown laments not feeling the way he should about Christmas, restlessly searching for something deeper and truer than what he feels inside. This is the lament at the heart of every abuse survivor, as Allison relates: “It was an impulse we could not shake. Even if we never said it aloud, we hoped for something beyond the lists we made, the rituals we gave ourselves. We didn’t feel the way we were supposed to feel—about family, about Christmas, about anything. And I knew that we were supposed to feel something, even if we were in such despair, and even if what I was supposed to feel was unnamable.” Ultimately only Linus is able to speak the simple truth of Christmas, of a glimpse of joy entering the midst of our shattered world.

I am thankful for the lives of those for whom Christmas evokes only memories of joy, but for many (perhaps most) people, the experience of Christmas is a bittersweet longing for hope, a space where the good news of Christmas is a glimpse of joy that enters into the heart of suffering, and where joy is always tinged with remembrance of horrors. For the hope of Christmas is meaningless without understanding the place of suffering Christ entered. This Christmas, can we talk about a Christmas that abuse survivors understand? One that does not avoid or whitewash suffering, but recognizes the joy of the gospel emerges out of the background of darkness and pain? Can we open up our hearts and homes to those longing for a taste of hope?

For my devotional this year, I’ve been using Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Their December meditation begins with this challenge: “Everything in our society teaches us to move away from suffering, to move out of neighborhoods where there is high crime, to move away from people who don’t look like us. But the gospel calls us to something altogether different. We are to laugh at fear, to lean into suffering, to open ourselves to the stranger. Advent is the season when we remember that Jesus put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood…with his coming, we learn that the most dangerous place for Christians to be is in comfort and safety, detached from the suffering of others. Places that are physically safe can be spiritually deadly.” These are prophetic words, and abuse is one of the clearest spheres where avoidance of suffering by those who can hear and who can help does the most harm.

This Christmas, let’s have a less “safe” Christmas, one where we lean into the suffering of both ourselves and others, for it is in this space that the gospel is good news.  

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Participant

"the experience of Christmas is a bittersweet longing for hope"

This is a really beautiful meditation, Monica, with so much truth. I look forward to part two. Thanks for sharing.

Community Builder

A book that I've recently read (Two Steps Forward by Sharon Garlough Brown) described a scene in a church. As people walked into the sanctuary on the first Sunday of Advent they saw the front of the sanctuary littered with garbage, car bumpers, garbage cans overturned, cardboard as if set up as a shelter, etc... and in the middle of it all was a manger, with a spotlight coming out from it that lit up the cross behind. Jesus came down into our mess - and it's GOOD NEWS for us and for the world. Thanks for this blog that reminds us to enter into the mess of our humanity with a hope that is sure.

Participant

I LOVE that, Bonnie. What a great illustration of the incarnation!