No angels, no star, no manger, no little town of Bethlehem: just St. John’s account of the Incarnation, the word of God that is God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. If you have one thing in mind and another happens instead, the “disconnect” can set off a sad contagion of feelings.
This is what happens sometimes when we come home for the holidays, isn’t it? We make plans for the trip with one idea in mind, but we arrive to find something quite different. “Home” is funny that way.
Moving 26 times during my life, I have an unusually strong relationship to an idealized and romantic notion of “home.” But, one particular home stands out in my mind. It was a love affair with a house that was doomed from the start. Through a happy series of events, I managed in 1987 to acquire a 150-year-old Virginia house situated on a half-acre lot, overgrown and camouflaged by two enormous Magnolias. The house—if you could see it–was situated with a view of an inlet of the James River that showed up a lovely suspension bridge. It was a crush at first sight.
Imagine my sadness when I brought an architect friend to see it and he told me, “You could throw $100,000 at this house and it would laugh at you.”
We never so much lived in the house as we hosted a perpetual reception welcoming contractors for years on end while we more or less just camped out there. None of them actually repaired, restored, or remodeled anything. Instead, each was more of an archeologist, merely announcing after months of digging the discovery of some new layer of antique wiring, horse hair plaster, or asbestos that would have to be resolved before the thing for which I had been paying them could be done.
I quickly moved from using reputable licensed contractors to more affordable day laborers who I picked up each morning at a U-Haul distribution center on the outskirts of town near the Navy yard. Eventually, even funds for this ran out. One day, returning the workers and explaining that I was all tapped out, one of them came to the car.
“You can come back and get me tomorrow if you want.” I explained again that I couldn’t pay him.
“It’s alright,” he offered, “I’ll do it for a shower and a meal.” Many of these men were virtually homeless.
This seemed like a more than reasonable offer since we both knew he’d need to finish running the pipe to make a shower if he wanted one.
He worked several days every week for years. We soon realized he was the house. I’d say he was a fixture but that wouldn’t be fair to him since he actually worked and most of the fixtures didn’t. It took him moving through the wide hallways, turning rusted valves, adjusting weights and pulleys and navigating crawl spaces and the attic eaves to keep household waste going into the sewer rather than simply pooling beneath us and the ceiling fans from crashing down and killing someone. He, alone, could keep the pipes from sounding like the house was haunted, and make sure the fireplaces didn’t asphyxiate us. Only he could coax doors and windows into both opening and closing.
In the meantime, I kept my side of the bargain. Occasionally, I paid him actual money. He used the shower every evening and I gave him an ample serving of whatever we were eating. Sometimes he joined us, but most times he preferred to sit on the porch and watch the sun set over the river—an amazing view once the wilderness had been tamed.
Day after day and week after week, he slowly transformed the house. Something about his simple rule of life, anchored by a shower and supper cosmically determined that everything necessary for those two events to occur would be put into place. More often than not, with our wiring we remained a family living in “great darkness” but it’s surprising how many other problems in our life resolved themselves once regular meals and good plumbing became commonplace.
It was a sad moment when I told a neighbor one evening while we visited on the sidewalk at twilight that I was being transferred out of state. The next morning I awoke to banging on the front door. They had probably tried to ring the bell, not realizing it was not yet wired to anything. The doorknob was out being polished with the rest of the brass so I opened the mail slot and said, “Down here!”
A woman said, “I heard from one of your neighbors that you’re moving. I want to buy your house.” And then to my surprise, she passed through the mail slot the biggest check I’d ever seen. “Hang on!” I cried and ran through the house and out the back door—which worked—and around to the front.
“Are you serious?” I asked, tightly clutching the check behind my back.
“Yes” she said.
“Don’t you want to see inside it?”
“No,” she said. “I’ve heard all about the house. There is, however, one condition: Your carpenter comes with the house. No carpenter, no deal.”
All the law and the prophets—much like my budget—proved insufficient to effect lasting change in humanity. Despite clear warnings and explicit directions, we just couldn’t figure out how to live together without killing each other, how to matter without someone being better than someone else, or how to love without conditions. In the end, God did the only thing God could do to communicate to us how much God loves us. God came to us, and moved in.
With the prophets and the law, only superficial changes had happened over time: Some pruning here, some polishing there. Only a resident carpenter, a builder and restorer living on site, could coax us into something habitable. All that “talk” had to become “flesh” and live and dwell among us.
Tonight, you may feel like you are that old house, the human equivalent of a toxic haunted horse-hair barn of a person that is never going to be quite right, that you have so many layers of screwed up wiring that your doorbell will never ring. The news of the Incarnation is the news that a big check has been written for you. It is an extravagant price in the light of the actual condition of our house. But the size of the check derives from the improved condition of our house once the carpenter lives among us.
Even in the light of the Incarnation, we will mostly always be who we are until Christ comes again: a little “off.” But, with God living in us and among us, we will become a more useful version of ourselves, less dangerous, and ultimately kind of charming.
The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light. O come, let us adore Him. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Eve of the Nativity
Wednesday, December 24, 2014