On Advent, Cancer, and Christmas – Prof. Vitor Westhelle

thomas110_1027092Two weeks ago, Dr. Lea Schweitz struck a deep chord among our readership with her blog post on the relationship between Advent and cancer. Currently living with cancer right now, is one of my colleagues here at the Lutheran seminary in Chicago – the Rev. Dr. Vitor Westhelle, and moved by our mutual colleague, he generously accepted my invitation to share his own thoughts on actually living with this disease, and what it means to be passive and wait for God to act – and what this means on today, Christmas Day. Please read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


When the first result of the biopsy came, the doctor, knowing I was a professor, and suspecting that I did not know what stage IV meant (I did), looked at me, part concerned, part whimsical, and explained: “It is like an A+ grade.” I did not know how to react, except to say that I rarely give an A+ grade. But we are talking about cancer and it is less rare than my A+ grades.

I thank prof. Lea Schweitz for her inspiring, graceful and … grim advent meditation. And could it be otherwise? Proper! After all, advent is in the church year the opening but also the ending. It is the beginning of the church calendar that starts with an apocalyptic blow of the trumpet. The Messiah comes, the decisive moment is near, the ax is dangling over our heads, the judge will pronounce the verdict.

Indeed, an occasion to talk about cancer, this uninvited guest that some of our bodies host and announces loathsome tidings. And then just lingers on, feasting at the table of our flesh.

As Lea well noticed in her reflections, some of us are better hosts then others. The race and class divide swings the pendulum definitely to African-Americans, and the proletariat (remember this word to describe the working poor? … it will be back!). These have gold status as preferential hosts. And the divide is designed to keep on growing (at least that was the decision taken by the US Electoral College in November of 2016). Yet, no one is safe. Family history (DNA), cultural, acquired or nutritional habits, environmental conditions all help to qualify the host for the arrival of the, elegant as it is (to use Lea’s apt description), vile guest, who has no plan to move out. Life within life that is there as a suicidal bomber. Or, perhaps, the herald of a new stage in human evolution.

I was recently referred to a passage (thanks Carolyn!) of Ezekiel 20:49  in which the prophet complains to God that, in delivering the assigned message, the hearers sneered at him. Ezekiel protests: “Ah Lord God, they are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of allegories?’”

Yes, Ezekiel, own it. This is what we all are in communicating God’s message: shameful makers of allegories, and we can do no other.

The famous chess match between Death and the Knight – Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Without apology for my preference, one of the most remarkable movies I have seen in my life was the 1957 production of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The title comes from Revelation 8: 1 that tells about the half an hour silence in heaven upon the Lamb’s opening of the seventh seal. The movie’s director is a son of a Lutheran priest that worked as a chaplain in a sanatorium. Ingmar Bergman used to sign along his name after a production, à la Bach, S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria), but was at the same time a doubting Thomas. The movie is about God’s silence midst the tragedies of life.

Briefly this is the allegory. A knight comes back from an unsuccessful Crusade where he went searching for meaning in his life, but to no avail. Back, he lands in a plague-ridden Sweden of the 14th century, and is met by death personified. As a master chess player, he lures the Grim Reaper into a chess game, seeking to postpone his demise. In the midst of this game, which was already days long, and while traveling back home, the knight gets to a church and goes to the confessional where he shares with the attending monk his meaningless life and the struggle he is having with death. In confession he reveals that he has a strategy to win the game, not knowing that he was confessing to death itself, his adversary, impersonating a monk.

Death, the decisive enemy (1 Cor 15: 26) is very tricky indeed. It comes as life within life to win the match. In this allegory I, as a cancer patient, do not identify with the knight. The doctors that treat me are the knight in the story in a deadly match with cancer that they alone see. In the movie, only the knight sees the enemy, the others think that he is playing alone. The doctors have the strategy, the medicines, the trial drugs, the chemo, and radiation and not rarely are they deceived by smart cancer cells that are ahead of the game.

The reason for bringing this movie into this account is to say that cancer patients do not identify with any of the players, but with the chessboard and the pieces that keep on falling in moves being made on either side. We are the neutral ground over which a battle for life or death is being fought. This allegory of the chess game with death, a classic medieval motif, is quite depressing when one identifies oneself with an inert component of it, a chess board with its pieces.  But it is realistic. It is not about the drama and search for a meaningful life. And it is not even about death and its stratagems either. It is about us, patients. Patients that do not have a scheduled release date, let alone the very idea of a release. Elusive remission, perhaps.

Except for some moments in which we are presented with an option for treatment (happens only at critical moments in which the physician will not take full responsibility, and one has to sign a pile of documents that exempt everyone of responsibility if things turn out bad), we as patients, are not subjects, just chessboards over which the game of life and death is being played. The word “patient” itself tells the tale. It comes from the Greek pathos, undergoing suffering, describing an utterly passive condition. This estate of passivity is proper to convey our surrendering to God, but it is a disturbing thought when you know that, in dealing with physicians and oncologists, there is ultimately no other option but to trust them and their expertise. And no one can doubt the advances in the treatment of cancer from which we may benefit, and they administer. But in fact, we are paradoxically closer than we think to the native healers of our lands before colonization, with the difference that, for the healers, the connection with the divine was explicit, now it is not, but equally real, and, maybe, for that reason, comforting.


But allegories and analogies carry us only that far. There are many other actors at play. Friends and family are there with us, and often suffer more with the prospect of our passing than we can ever truly appreciate. Nurses, technicians, and assistants that administer drugs, take and measure vital signs, and an array of other things that they do,  are angels of mercy. They also carry the weight of our pain as the metabolism in our bodies keeps changing, while they undergo mutation.

However, today is Christmas.

The frightening time of advent’s apocalyptic expectations turns into a festive celebration, because God joins the human condition. Emmanuel, God with and in the world, meeting life precisely there were it is most fragile and abandoned. God is there as a fragile babe with and in the underside of the divide to be there with those who need. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Mark 2: 17). And this is not an allegory to describe a spiritual condition. It is the physician who takes upon herself the condition of those who need healing, soteria! This is what is meant by God taking our flesh, being incarnate: God’s got cancer. Or should we say “incancerated”?

Dr. Westhelle began his theological career as a journalist for the national church newspaper in São Leopoldo, RS, Brazil (1975-76) . Ordained in 1988, he served for four years as parish pastor of a 13-point parish in Paróquia Evangélica de Matelândia, PR, Brazil. At that time he also was the Coordinator of the Ecumenical Commission on Land in Paraná where he was an enabler and a companion with those struggling for land and justice. In 1989 Westhelle was invited to be a member of the faculty of Escola Superior de Teologia, São Leopoldo as professor of systematic theology and ethics, where he continued until he joined the Lutheran School of Theology in 1993. He was visiting professor at the University of Natal, South Africa, and the University of Aarhus, Denmark.  He has written widely on the theology of Luther, and on the themes of Liberation, Creation, the Apocalyptic and Eschatology. The cross-theme, in particular, theologia crucis, defines who Westhelle is as a theologian. A prolific writer and editor, with more than 130 scholarly publications, Westhelle is author or co-editor of nine books, as well as  a highly-sought speaker throughout academic circles and the Church.

5 thoughts on “On Advent, Cancer, and Christmas – Prof. Vitor Westhelle

  1. Pingback: Swallowed Up by Life – Rev. Dr. Thomas Haverly – We Talk. We Listen.

  2. Pingback: On Advent, Cancer, and Christmas – Prof. Vitor Westhelle – We Talk. We Listen.

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