"A name written, that no man knew"

   But he knew! On the first day of the year, the feast that Episcopalians call “Holy Name,” every other year we read from the 19th chapter of the Revelation to Saint John the Divine. It is a passage that describes a vision of Jesus in the future. He is in (or above) the sky. He is on a white horse. He is called Faithful and True. He is coming to judge, and he is going to judge with righteousness and make war, which is to say, he is going to conquer the unrighteous who have wickedly turned against God and terrorize the earth. His eyes see everything; his head wears many crowns. His clothing has been dipped in blood—a sign to remind us of the cross. And in case we are wondering who he is, we are told that “his name is called The Word of God.” He is going to rule the earth. On his clothing and on his thigh there is a name written: King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

    This is a thrilling picture of the victory of Christ over all evil, and his effectuation of his kingship and rule over all the nations of the earth. But in the midst of it is a very mysterious line. We are told what he is called (Faithful and True); we are told that his name is called The Word of God; we are told that there is a name written upon him, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But for all this we are not told as it were his real name. Saint John the Divine writes: “His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself.”

    I do not know what this means. I do not think it means the name “Jesus,” because that name is known throughout the world, known to those who love him and known also to those who despise him. Rather, I think that he has “a name written, that no man knew” points to the infinite depths of Jesus’ person. There is more to him than anyone can know. We know he is faithful, true, God’s Word, and the ruler over all other rulers through the universe. But that does not exhaust who he is. There is ever more to Jesus than we can name.

    It also, I think, points to Jesus’ complete self-understanding. In a sense, no one knows your real name, whoever you are. You also have infinite depths that are hidden from other people. But in our cases, those depths are hidden also from us. This means that, in a sense, I don’t know who I am! I don’t know what the name “Victor” points to. But Jesus always had complete self-mastery; he always understood everyone around him and also himself. Perhaps the most amazing words in Rev. 19:11-16 are “but he himself.” No one knew the name he had; “but he himself,” he knew.

    The scripture lessons for Morning and Evening Prayer on major feasts, like the Holy Name on January 1, tend to approach the substance of the feast obliquely. The Holy Name is about Jesus’ circumcision and being given the name that means “God saves.” But the church opens up the possibility of meditating on things from unexpected angles. I am writing this in the evening of January 1. I read Rev. 19 earlier this morning, and I’ve been pondering it all day.

    You have a chance to try this yourself. Saturday, January 6, is the Epiphany. The lessons for Morning and Evening Prayer are in the Prayer Book on page 943.

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    Out & About. Sunday, January 14, I am to preach at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas; the Eucharists are at 9 and 11:15 a.m. That evening at 5 p.m., also at St. Matthew’s, I will lead a discussion of J. F. Powers’s novel, Morte d’Urban. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to the discussion; others are welcome to come and listen. We meet in the Great Hall: from the parking lot, walk around the church for the entrance. The conversation ends at 6:30.


The Christ Child in Carols - and in Us

The traditional Nine Lessons and Carols opens with the carol “Once in Royal David’s City.” The words were written by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848; they first appeared in the U.S. in Cantica Sacra, Hymns for the Children of the Catholic Church, in 1865. In the lessons and carols service, a single boy treble sings the opening stanza unaccompanied; gradually everyone else joins in—which is to say, it ends up not a children’s hymn, but one sung by all of us.

    After participating in this service, a young priest in Dallas spoke of the remarkable words we had just sung. Although in contemporary hymnals the words of many hymns have been changed (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not), we had sung older versions—with which he was not familiar. For instance, the third stanza of “Once in Royal David’s City” speaks of Jesus’ growth in childhood in this way: “And, through all his wondrous childhood, / He would honor and obey, / Love, and watch the lowly maiden / In whose gentle arms he lay.” The baby in his mother’s arms is watching the woman he will honor, obey, and love though all his childhood, a childhood that is “wondrous.” The stanza concludes with a call to all Christian children to be “mild, obedient, good as he.”

    But this is not a hymn in which adults are telling this to their children! No—and here’s the wonder my friend was seeing—the hymn speaks of all who are singing it as children. That is to say, in singing it we identify ourselves as children. The next stanza begins: “For he is our childhood’s pattern.” “Our” childhood, the childhood of those who are singing, the childhood that is our present reality! We continue: “Day by day like us he grew; / He was little, weak, and helpless, / Tears and smiles like us he knew. / And he feeleth for our sadness, / And he shareth in our gladness.”

    Children know the mixture of life already—it is not an adult secret. What mixture do I mean? That of “tears and smiles.” Children also know something adults forget: In the big world around us, in the universe!, we are fundamentally “little, weak, and helpless.” Adults have not become masters of the universe; at most, and at worst, they have just forgotten who they are. Yet things are not hopeless. Children grow; day by day Jesus grew; we who sing this carol at Christmas can grow still. . . .

    The above is part of a “Pastoral Reflection” I wrote for the Human Life Review. You can read the rest of it here: https://humanlifereview.com/the-christ-child-in-carols-and-in-us/

    Out & About. This column will not appear again until 2024. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading Morte d'Urban by J. F. Powers. As I have said before, the “Urban” whose death is named in the title is a priest of the order of St. Clement, a group known for nothing much. Urban has designs to improve them—which all collapse after his head intersects with a golf ball. Powers wrote deadpan, drily humorous stories and novels; Morte d’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963—after which it fell into ill-deserved obscurity. We will discuss it at 5pm on Sunday, January 14, at the Good Books & Good Talk seminar at St. Matthew’s. But it’s worth reading even if you don’t live in Dallas.

 

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: