The Ecstasy of Christmas
St. John’s version of the Christmas story is quite different from the one we normally hear on Christmas Eve (John 1:1-14). St. John takes us beyond the external setting of Jesus’ birth. In John’s account we do not go to Bethlehem, we do not see Mary and Joseph, and there is no baby in a manger. We do not hear the singing of angel choirs. Shepherds are not guarding their flocks by night and wise men do not come from afar bearing gifts.
John has stripped away the usual people, voices, and events we associate with Christmas. It is not because they are unimportant. It is because THE story is bigger than their individual stories. THE story is more than a particular place and time in history. In one sense John is telling us the story behind the story. He is revealing the inner reality and meaning of the incarnation. For John the incarnation is the ultimate act of creation. St. Gregory of Nyssa called it the “festival of re-creation.”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
We can hear the echoes of the Genesis creation story. “In the beginning God said…. And there was…” light, sky, land, vegetation, living creatures from the water, birds of the air, living creatures from the earth, and humankind made in the divine image, according to the divine likeness (Genesis 1:1-27). John continues that great story of creation. In the Gospel according to John it is as if God is saying, “Let us and humanity be one. Let us participate in each other’s lives. Let the Word become flesh and live among humanity. Let humanity have the power to become my children, born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” And there was the incarnation.
John’s Christmas story, however, is not simply one of continuing creation and incarnation. It is the story of ecstasy. Ecstasy is at the heart of the incarnation as well as every act of true creation. Not very often do we speak or hear about ecstasy in the Church. But Christmas Day, perhaps more than any other day in the liturgical year, speaks of ecstasy. The literal meaning of ecstasy (in the Greek, ekstasis) is to stand outside of oneself. It is a movement from self to the other.
With the Word’s becoming flesh, God came out of himself in a movement of love. He is the ecstatic God who, as St. Dionysius the Areopagite says, comes out of himself to meet us going out of ourselves to meet him. God initiates the ecstatic act and invites our ecstatic response. For union always demands a double movement – a movement from God out of himself as well as a movement from humanity out of itself.
Ecstasy is the distinctive trait of divine love. St Maximus the Confessor spoke about it in this way:
“Theologians at times call the divine an erotic force, sometimes love, and at other times that which is intensely longed for and loved. Consequently, as an erotic force and as love, the divine itself is subject to movement; and being that which is intensely longed for and loved, it attracts to itself everything that is receptive of this force and love.”
“The divine erotic force also produces ecstasy, compelling those who love to belong not to themselves but to those whom they love.”
This double movement of God to humanity and humanity to God, the mystery of reciprocity, finds its fullest and most complete expression in the God man, Jesus. The Son of God became the child of a human mother in order that the sons and daughters of human mothers might become children of God.
The gift of Christmas is ecstasy and ecstasy always invites ecstasy.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus - John Anthony McGuckin
Maximus the Confessor Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World - Christian Theology in Context - Paul M. Blowers
Michael Marsh Blog
Gregory of Nyssa Sermons on the Beatitudes - Classics in Spiritual Formation - Michael Glerup, Gregory
Lives of The Saints for Everyday in the Year - Alban Butler
Maximus the Confessor (CWS): Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality Series) - Rev. George C. Berthold
Lives of the Improbable Saints - Richard Coles
St. Dionysius Of Alexandria: Letters and Treatises - Dionysius, of Alexandria, Saint, d 265, Charles Lett, Feltoe