In my last post I hoped to convey the importance and gravity of choosing good and proper songs for church. I suggested using the triple test of “everywhere, always, and by all” (universality, antiquity, and consent) as a guide for choosing songs, relying on the judgment of the Church through the ages instead of following the unbalanced judgment of isolated times and places. This approach guarantees orthodox content and a worthy quality of song to be sung in church, and it gives occasion for those doing the choosing to exercise prudence and humility, relieving them of the temptation to assert their own wisdom and will.
But I suggested that it just may be the prerogative of those responsible for the music at their churches to sometimes search beyond the safety of those three criteria for content, but only once they have gained a strong education in the mind of the Church, and with great humility and caution. A hymnal will be the most obvious place to look for a song for church, but be warned: all hymnals are a potentially hazardous mixture of songs ranging from the excellent to the wretched. Venture into every hymnal with critical eyes and a discerning heart.
I’d like to give an example of a hymn that I think achieves high marks in another set of criteria: orthodoxy, pedagogy, doxology, and poetry. I think this hymn is certainly orthodox, not least for being so thoroughly biblical. Because of its orthodoxy and its lucidity I think it’s remarkably pedagogic, educational, instructive. Though it’s not overtly doxological, I think it does indeed praise God through its proclamatory, even creedal-like character. And though it may not be the highest form of poetry humanity has yet achieved, within its simple, even child-like meter and tone, it does display a profound poetical apprehension of the theological, cosmological, and anthropological implications of the narrative of the Incarnation. Let’s look at it — it’s called At The Name Of Jesus.
At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess Him King of Glory now;
’Tis the Father’s pleasure we should call Him Lord,
Who from the beginning was the mighty Word.
Humbled for a season, to receive a name
From the lips of sinners unto whom He came,
Faithfully He bore it, spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious when from death He passed.
Bore it up triumphant with its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures, to the central height,
To the throne of Godhead, to the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory of that perfect rest.
In your hearts enthrone Him; there let Him subdue
All that is not holy, all that is not true;
Crown Him as your Captain in temptation’s hour;
Let His will enfold you in its light and power.
The first two lines of the hymn are nearly a direct quotation from Philippians 2:10-11, and the well known title “King of Glory” comes from Psalm 24. These lines confess, with St. Paul, the awe-ful mystery of the Incarnation by foretelling one of its inevitable consequences: that eventually all of creation will recognize the one Lord and will reverence his human name. The third line reminds us of the two great theophanies in the Gospels — Christ’s baptism and his transfiguration — where the Father affirms that he is well-pleased with his Son and that we should listen to him. And the fourth line makes that crucial confession that the Son who was affirmed by the Father here before men is the same person as the mighty Word (λόγος) — that ordering, governing, foundational, creative principle and ground of existence by which all things came into being — identified by St. John as being with God and being truly God. This essential Christian confession is here also used as the starting point of the narrative of the Incarnation which the rest of the hymn recounts.
The first words of the second stanza observe two things: that the mighty Word was humbled, and that it was for a season. That he humbled or emptied himself is clearly said by St. Paul (again coming from Philippians 2), because how else do you describe the Uncreated putting on created nature, God truly becoming man? This humbling was only for a season, though, because the whole point of God stooping to the lowest depths of the human condition was to then raise humanity up to God. Thus “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). Here in the first and second lines of stanza two we are reminded that the name “Jesus” was received only when the Word of God became flesh, and from his own sinful creatures at that. The name of “Jesus”, like our human nature that he took on, is now borne by God himself, perfectly, spotlessly, all the way into death and hades. But on the day of his victorious resurrection, nothing of his humanity has been lost to death, including his name, as line four shows us.
The third stanza describes the “ascension” of Jesus “through all ranks of creatures, to the central height.” The upward movement is a continuation of the return journey from the depths of sheol, the pit of hades, now up through the taxonomy of all created things. At the highest height and the center of all things, the ultimate peak, is the “place” where God dwells, the throne of the Father. The mountain top imagery of this spiritual reality has been used before, notably by St. Ephrem the Syrian in the fourth century in his Hymns On Paradise. In his ascension, Jesus still bears the name he received, the name functioning here as a poetical device representing our humanity. The “perfect rest” with which he fills that name (our humanity) I understand to be not a passive inactivity, but the complete fulfillment of all that human nature can attain to — perfect union with divinity. We can already become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), and the process of becoming more and more united with the divine nature (called theosis) is well marked-out in the Church. The reason Christians are able to partake at all of God and to go on partaking is because Jesus, in uniting his divinity with our humanity, then redeeming our humanity from death, then raising our humanity to the height of the throne of God, has transformed our humanity and created in us a boundless potential for union with God.
The fourth stanza turns from confession to instruction. This stanza answers not the question of the entitled church-goer “How does this apply to my life?”, but rather the question of the convicted sinner “What must I do to be saved?” If Jesus is already enthroned in heaven and will one day command the reverence of all creation, then we must anticipate that reality now in our own hearts by enthroning him there. Submitting to his purifying work of subduing whatever is found within us that isn’t good and true, we must learn to turn to and rely on him at all times, especially in the trying and tempting times. The will, that is, the way of Jesus has been filled with his strength and power. That way includes the cross, the death, of our unruly and rebellious wills and egos, but it’s also the only way that follows his luminous footsteps to the central height where our nature now will find its only fulfillment, peace, and joy.
This hymn was published by Caroline Maria Noel in 1861. What little biographic information I found on Noel indicates that she was sick and suffered much of her life. The majority of her poetry was written for the edification of “the sick and lonely”, and seemed to have been the fruit of her own pain. The hymn “At The Name Of Jesus” is by far the best known of her poems and has grown to be widely used as a processional hymn on the Feast of the Ascension. It’s also appropriate for the Feast of the Holy Name.