There’s no question that cancer is a life-changing disease: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Those of us diagnosed with a Stage III or Stage IV cancer assuredly must confront our mortality, as the disease makes it clear that we’re not quite as in charge of our own life as we once assumed.
Cancer creates numerous other changes, as well. The world and the people in it seem to take on heightened clarity: its beauty, its starkness, its unfairness, its inequities, its injustices. Some of these insights can be quite unexpected.
One of them is how cancer changed my conception of Christmas.
As a kid, it was not surprisingly all about the gifts. Christmas was always preceded by days of eager anticipation and careful analysis of packages with my name on them by shaking, measuring and surreptitiously folding back wrapping paper at its seams, where it was less likely to be noticed by parents (or so I thought).
As an adult, I realized Christmas was about much more than gifts. Christmas celebrated the birth of a Savior, who arrived rather unexpectedly as a baby. The theological underpinnings of Christmas may have been abstract, but it sure made for a compelling story.
And then on a cold January morning in 2009 I heard the fateful words, “you have a nasty cancer.” And like so many millions before me, my world turned upside down and inside out. Cancer—the “beast” as some have called it—had invaded my body and my life.
“Invasion” has been very much on my mind ever since.
Being forced to confront my own mortality as an invaded being, many of the cultural and economic trappings of Christmas have melted away into irrelevance, better revealing the bare bones of the story of a shivering couple on a dark night seeking shelter in a strange town so the woman could give birth.
But what stands out amidst the starkness is that at its core, this story is not really about mangers, shepherds, angels, or wise men–or even the young couple. It is really about an invasion.
The story of Christmas is the recounting of God’s invasion in real space and real time. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14) The incomprehensible became human. The omnipotent arrived in a cave outside an obscure Judean town as the smallest, weakest human life we know: a baby.
But the Christmas invasion was quite different than the one I had experienced. This was not an invasion of disease. This was the invasion of Love.
Love invaded the world of fallenness, of cruelty, of injustice, of disease, and yes, of cancer on that long ago middle-eastern night. Love is the single invasion that ultimately conquers all the others. Yes, we still live in a fallen, disease-ridden world. But that invasion of love changed the world—and it has also brought the invasion of hope.
It took cancer—an invasion of personal malevolent intent—to make me recognize the real meaning of Christmas: God’s invasion of global benevolent intent.
God’s love has been invading the world for more than 2000 Christmases. That is why this season stands as a reminder that each of us who live with cancer have a clear choice. We can allow the malevolent invader to assimilate our entire being: physical, emotional, spiritual.
Or, we can can transform an invasion bent on conquering us, turning it inside out by sharing the Christmas reality of love and hope. We can help make the world a little less hostile and a bit more focused on the things that really matter. Especially for those—and their loved ones—who will come after us and find their own lives turned upside down by the same invader that has tried to conquer us.
So, on this Christmas 2013, I hope we can each reflect for a moment on how the Love that transcends all else has invaded our lives, the lives of those we love, and indeed, of all humankind. And how that invasion can transform each of us if we just let it.