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Carving a Life

Christmas Day: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

December 25, 2023

He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. – Hebrews 1:3


Good Morning, St. Aidan’s, and Merry Christmas.

            When I was growing up, my paternal grandfather, Gramps as my sister and I called him, was known in our family for being a craftsman. He was very good with his hands. And while he was capable of repairing things, his skill truly emerged in creating, especially with wood. His skill was manifest in the modest ranch-style home of wood and reclaimed brick that he and my grandmother built together in the early 1950s. But where he truly shined was in wood carving. He had taught himself how to carve when he was in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II. I found his earliest carvings especially stunning – smooth, skillfully sculpted figures, busts, and reliefs. In his retirement he devoted all the more time to his craft. Once he carved a small door with a scene from that year’s cover of the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker. He carved me a nutcracker when I was a child, as well (though alas, it did not crack nuts). When I was a bit older and went through an obsession with vikings, he carved me a huge version of a pewter figurine I had kept on a shelf (it was so huge and so much more muscular than my figurine that I admit I found it overwhelming and embarrassing…). He also loved to scavenge wood for his projects, pulling his 1969 Mercury Cougar over to score a chunk from the side of the road and then squirreling it away in the garage, much to my grandmother’s dismay. Once when an unusual tree in my mom’s yard had to be trimmed, we looked at the twisting form and furry bark of the chunks left behind, and I suggested he could use one to do John the Baptist – and he did!

            In all his handiwork, but especially his carving, I see Gramps as participating in the creative process imprinted upon us by the God of all Creation, the God in whose image we are made, the God who joined and redeemed us in our fragile, misused freedom when we fell far short of the glory intended for us. We hear in our passages from the Gospel of John and the letter to the Hebrews of God the Son, the divine Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, born in our midst on this day – as we plot the mystery of this birth onto our flawed human calendar. God the Son is “the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint [the χαρακτὴρ, the embossed stamp] of God's very being… [who] sustains all things by his powerful word,” we hear from Hebrews (Hebrews 1:3). “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” we hear from the Gospel of John, “and we have seen [God’s] glory” (John 1:14). In the divine action of creating and joining, in God’s generative, redeeming work, flesh itself is unfolded and hallowed, uplifted, given fresh pathways to manifest divine glory (to gesture towards Irenaeus of Lyons…). Creation itself is recreated in God’s saving action in Jesus Christ, launched at Christmas, completed at Easter. To create over the course of our lives, to carve our lives in holy freedom, is to offer ourselves in courage and curiosity to the God who made us. It is to respond to the gift of our lives – our bodies and souls, works in progress though they are – with gifts of our own, even as we may struggle with twists and turns of branch or bark.

To receive a hand-carved gift from Gramps was truly a privilege. Even as I might know such a gift was coming – perhaps spying it on his workbench when I visited, or perhaps if he showed me his progress, expressing exasperation over a particular difficulty in the wood – to actually open that gift on Christmas morning or a birthday was such a grace. In what turned out to be the last year of his life, Gramps and my mom got together to give me a roll top desk. Kateri and I were living in South Bay as Kateri did her postdoc, and I had been spending afternoons with Gramps, working with him in his yard and various other projects. I did not spy this work in progress, however: a placard he created to rest on the top of my desk. On one side is a cross with corpus, and my first initial and last name. This was early in my transition, and Gramps – at 92 and politically conservative – was somewhat concerned, basically supportive, and ultimately I think curious about the direction of my life, so I appreciated the stand-alone C which could stand for the name he knew me by or my current name. On the back of the placard is a nativity scene. This was probably the last carving he did. It is not at all like the early, smooth, complicated work he did as a young man—it has a rough, childlike quality, reflecting his struggle to get his hands to work as they once had. I love it and look at it every day that I work at home. It strikes me as a fitting emblem to the mystery, the gift of life: of our call as creatures invited to create in collaboration with the one who made and redeemed us, the one who urges us into transformation, who calls us to dwell with one another in love, respect, curiosity and peace. Thanks be to God for creation and creators, for healers, for transformers. How beautiful upon the mantle are the hands of the one who carves peace (to re-render Isaiah 52:7).

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