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Simplified, Not Dumbed Down!
by Stephen Bevans, SVD | December 21, 2011
Scripture Reflection for the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) (December 25, 2011)
Readings for the Midnight Mass: Isaiah 9:1-6, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14
Readings for the Mass at Dawn: Isaiah 62:11-12, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:15-20
Readings for the Mass during the Day: Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-6, John 1:1-18
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One of the signs of a really good teacher is the ability to simplify a very difficult and complex idea, without “dumbing it down.” Whether it is understanding something like the theory of relativity, a key mathematical theorem or algebraic formula, a play by Shakespeare, or even the doctrine of the Trinity, a good teacher begins with what the students already know, and then moves them gradually toward what they don’t know. Starting with what students can grasp or have experienced is the best way to be exposed to ideas that otherwise would be confusing or incomprehensible.
As we celebrate the feast of Christmas, we recognize that God is the best teacher of all. “The Word,” the gospel read on Christmas day proclaims, “became flesh, and dwelt among us.” In order to teach us about God’s own self, about what God really is in all God’s mystery, God became one of us. God makes Godself simple, but in no way “dumbs Godself down.” In Jesus, all the “kindness and generous love of God our Savior” has appeared, as we read in the second reading for Christmas morning. Even though, as Isaiah says in the Mass at midnight, we are people who have walked in darkness, now a great light has dawned. And in this light we see God the way God really is.
And this is surprising, for although the God who appears is called “Wonderful, Counselor, God-hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace,” whose “dominion is vast and forever peaceful,” God is “a child” who is “born for us,” a child laid in a manger—“because there was no room for them in the inn,” we read from Luke’s gospel at the Mass at midnight.
In a homily that he gave at midnight Mass, Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes the simplicity and smallness of our God who reveals God’s true nature in the Christmas story. “God’s sign is simplicity,” the pope said. “God’s sign is the baby. God sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby—defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child.”
God makes Godself simple without “dumbing down.” Sometimes I think we imagine the incarnation as a kind of “episode” in God’s life. God needs to communicate with us, so God becomes human to help us understand. But God is really not like that, we think. God is really so powerful that God can do whatever God wants. God is really jealous of the divine glory and is easily offended by anything that human beings do that deviate from the divine laws. God is much more like a powerful King than a baby. And so when the incarnation is finished after Jesus’ life, God goes back to being God—enough of this smallness and simplicity!
But I think Christmas shows that this is not true. God is simple without dumbing God’s majesty and greatness down. This is the real mystery. God really is like this baby! God really is vulnerable and needs our help! It is this smallness and gentleness and vulnerability that reveal the true nature of power, because real power is really love. This is the overwhelming “complexity” that God teaches us about through the birth of Jesus. This is the blinding light that amazes the shepherds on Christmas night. This is the God for whom we are “on call.” “The grace of God has appeared,” the Letter to Titus proclaims, and although it has been “simplified” in the Incarnation, it has not been “dumbed down”!
 Pope Benedict’s homily is excerpted in Give Us This Day: Daily Prayer for Today’s Catholics (November 27-December 31, 2011), 306-07.
Image: Birth of Jesus Christ by Tissot - Copyright 2010 Free Christ Images
All of us at the CTU office of Catholics on Call
--Birgit, Sheila, and Steve—
wish you a Blessed Christmas and a very rich and prosperous New Year.
Stephen Bevans, SVD
Steve Bevans is Professor Emeritus at Catholic Theological Union and the Faculty Moderator for Catholics on Call. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines.
His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009).
He is past president of the American Society of Missiology (2006) and past member of the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America (2007-2009). In 2009 he was visiting lecturer at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2013 he was the only Catholic to speak at a Plenary at the Tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea.