For 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 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.