Month: December 2014

My Phone’s Dead, but God’s Not

iphone-500291_1280For millenials, the shift from physical to virtual interactions, from social life to social networks, from phone calls to text messages, has been so connatural to our growing up that it sometimes requires some mental heavy lifting for us to realize just how drastically our concept of relationships has changed in the past ten years. The relative norm for us is to be in semi-instant contact, being able to text and expect a reply within twenty minutes to an hour—-depending on the closeness of the relationship. When there is unexplained or unexpected silence in regular communication, we may get antsy, impatient, or anxious. Hey, did you get my text? Answer your phone. Is everything ok?

Those who remember a pre-smartphone world may indulge in a self-deprecatory chuckle when they catch themselves in a situation like this. And yet when the modus operandi of modern relationships has changed, this kind of scenario can actually signal a real interruption of the norm. If two people are having a texting conversation, and one of them suddenly enters a “dead” zone, the unheralded break in communication can lead to serious misunderstandings—but this problem is unlikely to arise if the conversation happened in person.

Subtly, the very dynamic of relationships is morphing as we grow accustomed to constant contact, in which absences from communication must always be accounted for. When someone goes “off the grid” for awhile, it usually merits a notice to their closest friends and family, to prevent concerns arising. We thus can tend to plan our relationships around our ability to connect virtually.

I realized how pervasive the “always connected” mindset was becoming in my own life when I passed a place on my daily commute where I typically have no reception for the space of about ten minutes. Pausing in my rosary, I thought, “Oh, I should wait til I have reception again. God won’t be able to hear me.” Then I caught myself. I was stunned. Even my prayer had been morphed into the mental box of either “connected” or not.

And here is where we must actively re-think how we perceive relationships: when it comes to God.  A human person may sometimes be available and sometimes not. He might be busy, sick, or sleeping. He may be “off the grid.” Even on the grid, a human being is not always the best communicator or listener. But reaching God does not require a device; your phone may run out of battery when you’re talking to your girlfriend, but God doesn’t. He is always “on.” He is always there.

This reality plays the central part in Elijah’s ironic triumph over the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings. When the prophets of the false god have exhausted themselves calling out in vain to a non-existent god, Elijah delivers what is perhaps the most satirical comment in the entire Old Testament: “And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’” (I Kings 18:27)

The joke is on the prophets of Baal; for God is never “on a journey” or “asleep” or too busy “musing” to talk to us. If we fear God isn’t photo (5)hearing our prayers, the problem is not a network outage. God can hear us from the emptiness and silence of the desert; He can be reached amidst the rushing crowds of a busy city, the isolation of the country, and even from the death-chambers of Auschwitz. In a world where we’re used to relationships that may be either “off” or “on,” we must remember that time and distance can make no barrier between His heart and ours. Don’t worry—He can hear you.

And yet, God knows that the way we are, as human beings living in a temporal world, we’re not satisfied just with virtual connectivity, with hoping that our reception doesn’t give out right when we hit “Send.” We don’t want a “I’ll message you” kind of relationship. At the end of the day, we want to come home to those we love, we want to see them on special holidays face to face, we want to hug them and watch the way they break into laughter and hear them tell us in person about their day.

God knew all this; He knew that if we were to be in a relationship with Him, we wouldn’t be fulfilled with long distance communication—even if we had perfect reception.

So He took it to the next level. He came down. He said, “Look, I’m getting all your messages. I saw your post on my wall. But that’s not enough. I love you and I want to be with you. See you soon.” And that’s why, this Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the God of more-than-virtual relationships. That’s why He didn’t say, “That was great, we should get together again soon, I’ll email you. Call me.” He said, “Hey, I am available for you to come visit me in person, physically, literally every day in the Eucharist.  I’m here, I love you. Come see me.” He indicated that this very tangible, very personal real-world connection is the way He likes to operate a thousand times in Scripture. When He creates Adam and Eve, He wants to walk with them in the evenings in the Garden. When Andrew asks our Lord “Where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come and see.”

So, if you’re wondering whether God is hearing your prayers this Advent, remember that He doesn’t offer us just a “call me maybe” kind of love.

It’s more of a “I will be with you, even until the end of time” kind of love.

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Christmas and Misogyny

My latest over at The Mirror

When Pope Francis was elected, I remember watching the news as they reported on the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s square to greet him for the first time. With characteristically absurd bias, the reporter had somehow managed to find one of the few radical women in the crowd, who told the cameras that she had come to protest that the new pope “respect women and women’s rights,” and that she really hoped he would (of course) allow women priests.

As this somewhat ironic interview highlighted, one of the most common complaints against orthodox Christianity in modern times is the ringing, serious accusation of misogyny.  “Patriarchal,” women-hating old men in traditional Christianity, I am told, want to control women and so make up misogynistic, repressive rules that are designed to keep only men in power.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and showing often better than telling. When I encounter angry accusations like this, there are a thousand logical, historical, or theological arguments that I could use to counter them. But on a more immediate level, my gut reaction to these accusations is to point with confidence to an image, a picture—to point to the figures at the center of the Christmas crèche. . . .

There are three figures we follow in intense expectation this month: Joseph, the blessed Virgin Mary, and the divine Child in her womb. In a direct and special way, without Mary, there is no Christmas.  It is her loving expectation, her difficult journey with Joseph, their prayerful anticipation of the coming of God Himself in the form of a tiny child, that we follow throughout this season leading up to Christmas.

In G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, he describes a situation when some members of his childhood church complained about a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus:

nativity-447767_1280When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. . . . The practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. . . . We must admit . . . that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.

This image is really shocking, because it hits home at a reality so obvious that it is all too easy to forget it. You cannot take away the Mother from around the figure of the Child. Without Mary, there is no Christmas; there is no way to remove womanhood from its place in the center of Christmas. In Christian feasting at Christmas, Mary is placed so high that there is hardly a carol or prayer that does not mention her. And rightly so—because Mary’s femininity, her heroic fortitude, self-sacrifice, and passionate, determined devotion to the will of God, is the prototype of womanhood that orthodox Christianity holds in deep, reverent esteem throughout the ages.

It could be, indeed, that it is precisely because Mary is so strikingly feminine that some more radical feminists would not want to see this image in the Christmas crèche as I do; that she embodies real feminine strength of character, but they wish to see such feminine strength only when it is “liberated” from the gift of feminine fertility—which some feminists think is not a gift but a problem to be cured with a pill. But be that as it may, the reality is still there: womanhood cannot be “repressed” out of the picture of Christmas—Christianity’s origin story. This Christmas, God is a child who refuses to leave the arms of his mother.