Family Name Unknown

By Victor Lee Austin

So I’m telling my old friend, someone who’s been a friend for years, someone who’s been my houseguest and we’ve shared a zillion dinners and we think alike about so many things, I’m telling my friend that I’m going to be preaching on “Family Name Unknown,” on how some refugees and others when they come to the United States don’t have a family name or they have one but the immigration officer doesn’t get it, doesn’t have time for it, whatever — and he says to me, “That’s how I got my name.”

It’s “Daniel.” His last name is Daniel. I hadn’t known why. My friend comes from Slovak stock. When his predecessors got to Ellis Island, his mother’s mother’s name came through, his mother’s father’s name, his father’s mother’s name, all came through, but his father’s father’s family name didn’t. The Ellis Island guy didn’t write down the Slovakian name; he wrote down “Daniel.”

Hold that thought.

Today out there in the world is Father’s Day. As a young priest, I used to rail against this day (and Mother’s Day) as Hallmark Card inventions. I was rector of a small Episcopal church and the people liked these days and so we had, say, all the fathers come up front at the time of the peace, just as we did for birthday and anniversary prayers, all the fathers came up and I said a prayer of blessing and then they went back to their pews. Likewise on Mother’s Day — so-called Hallmark second-Sunday-in-May Mother’s Day, although if I had my way I did it instead on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, the old English “Mothering Sunday” (which my wife called “Smothering Sunday”) — until one year, a bright middle-aged woman drew my attention to her isolation as she was left behind in the pews when the others went up. She’d had an awful marriage, escaped from it, never had children, wanted so much to be married, wanted to be a mother; it hadn’t happened. Thereafter I didn’t have people come forward; we just said a special prayer of blessing for the mothers who were present. Subsequently I learned something even better. It is to give thanks to God for the mothers who are present, but then go on to thank God for all our mothers; to deflect our attention from present company to where we came from.

So on this Father’s Day: we pray that God blesses you, if you are a father; but we also turn our prayers to our own fathers, giving thanks for them, whether they be here or not, still living or passed on. But sometimes where we come from turns out to be more complicated than we thought. It is an awesome discovery, if it happens to you (say) in your adolescence, to learn that the man you called your father all the time that you were growing up is not in fact your biological father. The man who has loved you, the man who gave you your family name, he was (you find) your stepfather, someone who stepped in to take the place of your biological father.

What is your family name, really? It could be someone else’s first name. It could come down to you as an accident from one of the random border-crossings of life. It could be a name given by someone who stepped in to love you.

We are trained through centuries of liturgical refinement to speak of St. Joseph as the spouse or the husband of St. Mary but not to speak of him as Jesus’ father. St. Luke, however, is not so fastidious. Writing about a famous incident when Jesus was 12 years old, Luke says that “his parents” went to Jerusalem annually, and when Jesus was lost and then after three days they found him, Mary says, “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.” Mary says “thy father and I”; Mary names Joseph as Jesus’ father—which of course he was. Stepping in to a hole where love needed to be, Joseph was everything a father should be to a boy. But Jesus knows whose son he really is. There in the Temple, discoursing with the teachers of the law, he said he had to “be about my Father’s business.”

Back in those days people didn’t have family names, but if Jesus had had one, it would have been Joseph’s. Jesus’ real family name—that God was his father—was hidden, unknown. We could have written on his documents “Jesus, FNU”—family name unknown.

Now what does all this have to do with refugees today? I have three things to affirm.

1. Families are important to human flourishing. The work of mothers and fathers is just about the most important work in the world. And when a mother or a father cannot do that work, then to step in, to take up their role, is magnificent and grand. Thank God for our mothers and fathers, biological and otherwise!

2. Similarly, cities, communities, places, nations, states — these are also necessary to human flourishing. Jesus did not have a surname or family name, but when they called him “Jesus of Nazareth,” they pointed out the importance of place. The opening of today’s gospel gets at the importance of this: Jesus went about all the cities and villages. Jesus, as it were, respects the lines, the boundaries, the several identities of cities and villages. There is no city or village to which Jesus did not go. They are all important. The gospel goes to all places, but it does not erase the boundary that delineates Texas from Oklahoma, or Dallas from Athens, or the United States from Mexico. People need places, homelands, governed societies, cities and communities, just as much as they need families.

But even as there can be a hole in a family, so there can be a hole in a city or community or nation, and it is a work of love to step into that hole, in some way analogous to stepparenting, and it is further love to support others who are doing so. One way to think of refugees is as people who have fallen through some sort of hole.

3. Yet although families are important, and cities and nations are important, they are also transitory. Borders have changed over time; the character of communities is ever evolving; governments and nations rise and fall, families re-form and merge and split as members marry others or die or go off as missionaries to wild places like India or China, or New York. Places and homelands and cities are important but transitory and mutable. The one thing that never changes is that every human being shares in the nature that the second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Word, took upon himself when he became incarnate of the virgin Mary. God in Christ has taken on our human nature, the nature that is common to the human race, and he has taken it on, not just for a time, but forever. Even today, sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven, the eternal Word of God has our human nature. It is a deep mystery. It often is unknown. But he has indeed passed through every city and village, so that it is his name that is our name, is everyone’s name.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence for the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.


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