"Rape was never uttered aloud. In silence, shame and guilt -- women suffered."
The woman's voice was etched by a lifetime of labor. Persistent and knowing, her words drew me in, linked me to a narrative that stretched far beyond my own generation.
We were gathered at school, a circle of women and teen girls. Our students had worked to research, reflect and share on topics related to sexual violence. Myths vs. facts. Dating relationships and healthy boundaries. Being a supportive friend. Professional resources. The bystander effect.
Each topic loomed challenging, unwieldy, and just plain tough. To support the students, women from our adult school community gathered to affirm and engage their presentations. As our conversation unfolded, I surveyed the room. Teens, millennials, seasoned activists: Never before had I explored these topics with such a multigenerational group of women. The experience felt new, daunting, yet infused with a distinctive power.
Outside our circle, headlines swirled. They shrieked stories of violence -- news reports now far too common. We'd all heard them. The rape culture embedded in university campuses. A plague of domestic abuse now scandalizing the NFL. Global sex trafficking. The horror of female slavery under the Islamic State group.
Meanwhile, in a small room, our circle of women gathered. Teens spoke and reflected on what they had learned, even experienced, of the violence around them. Personal stories broke open. Hopeful responses emerged. In our dialoguing together, a different kind of narrative slowly came to birth:
"I can support my friend when ..."
"It's important to reach out ..."
"We can respond by ..."
Our gathering held strong yet tender enough to cradle each rising voice. With every sharing, the circle stretched wider. As women and girls continued to speak, their witness quickened within me a bold vision:
One tiny room. A darkened world. Our womb-circle of women laboring toward life.
Christmas is born here.
Alleluia! On that day, Christmas was born among women whose voices, bodies and daily witness swelled with life -- new hope for the future. Women, like Mary, who claimed both the pangs of this labor and the promise of the birth. In this space here, Christ is born again and again.
Our circle of women gifted me with a Christmas witness. And yet, Christ incarnates all around us. Christ is present in women and men alike, within all people who contribute to this messy, challenging human struggle toward wholeness.
In a unique way, our church participates in this struggle. As bearers of Christ in the world, our faith identity is indelibly marked by the pangs of labor. One glance at our Catholic community offers evidence enough of this birthing process. And while it's important for us to be with the pain that often surfaces in our church today, we can also recognize her as a mother birthing our hope. Blessed be this church, pregnant and heaving, arched out in the throes of a holy labor.
Perhaps no other promise -- or challenge -- rings so deeply consoling. As many other young Catholic women, I grapple with the tensions and promise of this world and of my church. These challenges surface in my teaching ministry; they also appear in my marriage and family, my search for community, and in the ongoing quest for my place in this world. When meeting these challenges, I can often resist the labor so embedded in my human journey. Sometimes, I do not want it -- my own humanity, our thoroughly human condition.
What tremendous relief then: the grace of a Christmas Incarnation! This season invites us all to remember that even as we struggle to embrace our world, Christ already has. We don't need to flee the struggles that emerge in our lives, in our church, or in our global community. In fact, as we stay present to them, it is precisely in the pangs of our laboring that Christ is birthed again.
The memory of our women's circle remains with me. Voices rising in a tiny room, naming violence, seeking new life within darkness. The work continues, to be sure. However, in this Christmas season, we can celebrate the promise of its fulfillment. Until that day, may such a promise inspire and sustain our labor ahead.
[Jennifer Mertens recently completed her Master of Divinity from the Catholic Theological Union. She teaches religion at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati.]
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