Some people own their name in a way that defies all others. For example, when you read “Elvis” on this page, mostly likely your mind goes immediately to that Mississippi boy who would become the King. You don’t need any more clarification than his first name to come to that conclusion.
There are others. Cher, Sting, Beyonce, Prince, Adele, Oprah, Bono, Rihanna: All these shining stars of stage and screen. And history finds Plato, Voltaire, Dante, Rembrandt, and Aristotle. There is nothing about any of these individual names that is unique. But when you hear one of these names, a name that might be shared with millions, you probably don’t think of your great uncle Ringo, a childhood neighbor named Madonna, or your best friend’s pet cat, Liberace. You think of a particular individual who has set himself or herself apart by accomplishment or reputation.
The technical term is “mononym” or “mononymous person.” One name is enough for the proper identification of an individual to be made; one name is elevated above all others who might share the same vowels and syllables. Of course, this is no entertainment or Renaissance-based phenomenon.
Earlier this year I traveled to Nazareth, an ancient village that sits atop a stony cliff in Northern Israel. The original village of a few hundred people, as it was in the first century, is today flanked on all sides by a sprawling city. Some 75,000 Arabs, Christians, and Jews now live in Nazareth, a village that long ago outgrew its original outcrop.
I walked the oldest section of Nazareth’s twisted, crowded streets to reach the “Basilica of the Annunciation.” It is a massive church that marks the traditional site where Mary received the “good tidings of great joy,” from the angel Gabriel. Mary would give birth to a child, a miraculous boy, who would be titled, “The Son of the Most High” and who would follow in his ancestor’s – King David – footsteps.
And it was there in an inglorious grotto, very much like the original village of Nazareth which has been layered by centuries of growing stratification, that Mary heard the child’s name for the very first time: “You will call him “Yeshua,” an Aramaic form of “Joshua,” and for we English speakers, Jesus.
In Mary’s day “Jesus” was as common as Ethan, Olivia, Kate, or Connor might be today. Even in a village of Nazareth’s limited size there might have been a dozen boys with the name. But what makes Jesus so special, and the cause for our Christmas celebration, is that this ordinary name is attached to an extraordinary character, the Christ-child whom Christians accept as the Son of God.
Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary was not for the purpose of providing a clever, mononymous, stage name for her son. It was to reveal the grace and salvation of God’s Son, “who has been given the Name that is above all names,” even above the names of today’s brightest stars – and thank God for that.