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Cancer and the cross

As we stand at the precipice of Lent, I find that my mind goes back over this past year: a year that was tremendously difficult for me and my family. My journey through Lent, culminating in the service on Maundy Thursday, will be forever changed based on my experience last year.

Maundy Thursday has always been my favourite service of the year. I love the solemnity of the service. The stark contrast between the celebration of the Eucharist, immediately followed by the removal of all signs of life, leaves me continually awestruck. I find profound poignancy in the church being left as nothing but an empty shell. For me, it is a reminder of how the very life and heart of my faith is ripped away if I disregard the resurrected presence of the Lord.

These reflections are easy to make, sitting comfortably in my prayer desk, knowing that Easter is right around the corner. After all, these ruminations are easy when you never have to walk the road of suffering. Thus, year after year, I would enter this, my favourite service, with an attitude of pretend sombreness: the liturgy would be spoken with a touch of sadness, my pace of speech slow enough to echo a sense of mourning, my demeanour appropriately subdued and contemplative. But it would all be skin deep, for I would have already written my Easter sermon. Already had I read of the resurrection, and begun preparing myself for the Sunday celebration. Despite my love of Maundy Thursday, I have to wonder, did I ever actually enter into it?

But last year was different. My wife and I had known for some time that she was sick. Doctors had confirmed that there was a growth in her body, but assured us that it was benign: annoying, yes. Threatening, no. Surgery was done, and the growth removed. We thought that was the end of it, but then life turned upside down. The doctors had been mistaken, and that annoying but benign growth had, indeed, been cancerous. On Maundy Thursday, my wife and I were called down to the cancer centre to sign the appropriate paperwork so she could begin Chemotherapy. We heard about the risks, the symptoms, and the probability of survival. This day, the day of my favourite service, became a day about cancer, about the loss of hope, and about the closeness of death.

Despite the appointment at the cancer centre, I had agreed to be preside at the Maundy Thursday service. I drove my wife home from the cancer centre, having just signed on for an extremely aggressive treatment plan, turned around, and arrived at the church roughly 20 minutes prior to the beginning of the service. I walked into the church in a haze. I put on my vestments, and I sat in silence.

I know what you are thinking: I shouldn’t have been at the service. I should have called someone. I should have been sitting beside my wife. You would be right. But I wasn’t thinking straight. And so, I just went on auto-pilot and presided over the liturgy. I washed people’s feet; I preached the sermon; I began to celebrate the Eucharist. I felt as if I stumbled through the service, my words and prayers spoken from a place of deep emptiness. I felt an inner disconnect between who I was and who I was to be at the church. It was as if the church was expecting ministry as usual: the safe-and-easy-but-subdued Lenten reflections that had become common. Yet for me and my family, life was no longer safe, and it certainly wasn’t easy. Over everything we knew and loved, cancer had thrown a big question mark. Everything had changed, and I was not the same person.

This feeling of disconnect changed, however, as I celebrated the Eucharist. I stood behind the Altar, saying the words I have spoken so many times before: “this is my body given for you,” “this is my blood shed for you.” So many times, these words have been rattled off without thought. So many times, I have lifted the elements in a liturgically appropriate but completely rote action. But as I spoke the words that night, I heard them echoed back to me. It was as if Jesus whispered these very words into my heart. In that moment I almost began to cry as the full force of the Eucharistic message made its way to me. In those words I heard Jesus say:

Into the fear of what comes next, into the awaiting pain, into the vomiting and the constant sickness, the hair loss, the time off work, the crushing weight of chemo drugs and cancer treatments,—I come; Into the times when the role of caregiver seems taxing and long, into the feelings of exhaustion and sorrow, and into the fear of loss, my body is given for you, and my blood is shed for you. It is into all these dark places that I come. You are not alone.

Maundy Thursday, and indeed all of Lent, reminds us that it is in the very sucker punches of life that we find the presence of God. As we reach our hands out to receive him once again in bread and wine, we do so not from places of ease and comfort, but from places of agony and heart-wrenching need. The glory of the incarnation is the very ugliness into which Jesus comes. Christ offers himself into a world of lostness and confusion, a world where sometimes we feel powerless against the dark things that crash down upon us. The power of the cross is not just that Jesus heals our hurts and softens our pains, but that he hurts right along with us. Our agonies are met by his. This is the space in which we come to him in the Eucharist. We are called to enter the Eucharistic mystery precisely when we are overwhelmed with confusion, anger, and betrayal, and when can’t help but feel separated from God’s presence. Jesus institutes the Eucharist, and offers himself to us within it, precisely for the times when we stand in the church and feel completely hollow.

And yet, in that place, there is grace. In that place, there love. In that place, there is a Savior. Alleluia.

NOTE: I am happy to report that my wife has finished her treatments, has received a clear bill of health, and is doing wonderfully well.

 ANOTHER NOTE : In order to make room for other voices, I will be graciously retiring this blog. I thank THE COMMUNITY for this fabulous opportunity that I have enjoyed for over 5 years. You may follow my writings on my personal site: https://revkylenorman.wordpress.com/

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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9 Responses to Cancer and the cross

  1. Kyle, this is a powerful blog, I can relate to your struggles. Please know that you and your family have been in my prayers for the last year, and celebrate with you the good news of your wife’s recovery. Blessings… Susan

  2. Kyle Norman

    Thanks Susan. It has been a hard year – but with the blessing of our family and Christian community, we were able to get through it.

  3. Rev. Norman,

    I once was part of another faith community and had turned my back on God. However, little things occurred over the years that, now looking back, I realize that God was talking to me and asking me to come back to him. I just wasn’t listening.

    One of those times was when my Grandfather was in palliative care, dying from lung cancer even though he never smoked a cigarette. Watching him wither away was the most painful thing I had ever had to go through but what amazes me was the grace that he had knowing he was dying. To hear him speak of the Creator and all of the gifts he had given us and more specifically the gift of Jesus’ death on the cross I believe was God speaking to me through my Grandfather.

    I am now rediscovering my faith and as I enter into Lent for the first time (my previous faith community did not observe Lent), your blog post reminded me of those words my Grandfather spoke. It is a powerful reminder of why we observe Lent in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

    Thank you and God bless.

    • Kyle Norman

      Fred, Thank you for your openness about your own faith journey. I pray that you truly have a blessed observance of Lent this year, and at the end of it all, may you be blessed to discover a new the glory of Christ’s resurrection.

  4. Thank you so much Kyle. I have been praying for you and your family and glad to read that Good Health is now present.
    Please stay well and I will miss your blog. Your own site is already in my Favourites section.
    Tom

  5. Well written.
    As a survivor, I can tell you that it is possible to go through chemo without any nausea or vomiting. We are given meds to counter that, and they are effective. Nor does every person lose their hair
    It is encouraging to hear of your wife’s wellness! God’s blessings.

  6. Today I am suffering from a chest cold. I have to say it must be nothing like cancer. Nevertheless we breathe with our lungs. I play the trumpet and sing. I have a concert on Sunday and on Pancake Tuesday I play in a Dixieland Band at our Pancake Supper. I have asthma and a heart condition. Do you think you could each remember me in a prayer that I recover in a way that is most expedient for me.

  7. Dear Kyle: This is the first time I have read your blog. I’m sorry (for myself) that you are retiring from it! Thank you for this story. Your message about Jesus being with us in pain and confusion and uncertainty is one I needed to read today.

  8. Kyle, I have just read your post and I was so impressed with the description of your journey that I read it aloud to Dennis (and this time I cried). You have captured the journey so well, thank you. Dennis had 2/3 of his stomach removed due to cancer 2 years ago, then travelled the road of radiation and chemo and it was the church that helped me to hold it all together to be his caregiver and support person.
    Without the prayers of our church family, I would not have been able to be strong for him. And yes, many times I found myself weeping in church knowing that our Saviour went through so much more pain and agony for us. I am so grateful that He loves us.

    And yes, we have now had a year of clean bi-monthly blood tests, and will soon be on quarterly tests this coming year.

    I have enjoyed being able to stay in touch by reading your posts in the community, please say hello to all the family.

    Janice Varga

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