Elegy for an iPhoneby Fr. Daniel+ on December 9, 2021
My iPhone is dying. It’s in that end-stage of life where the battery drops from fully charged to 83% almost as soon as I unplug it, and if I’m using the GPS? Forget about it.
Charging it is no simple task, either. The charge port on the phone is worn out, so in order for the charger to actually work I have to prop up the iPhone on its edge a bit and then wedge a magazine or a handkerchief underneath the cord. I made several phone calls this week sitting awkwardly on my office chair, leaning over close to the outlet so the phone would stay charged while I talked. The other day, my phone mysteriously dropped directly to 1% battery life and then switched off. It was jarring, almost philosophically so.
I’ve needed to replace this heavily-used and well-traveled iPhone 7 for a while now, but I don’t like dealing with all of that. Part of my resistance is a powerful nostalgia for the simpler flip-phone lifestyle I had until 2015; part of it is feeling largely unequipped to navigate the sci-fi mysteries of data plans and the like; part of it is an intuitive resistance to change or anything that increases my reliance on techy things and the ever-present ‘cloud.’
But I’m also super into some podcasts; I keep all my music on my phone; and I really like being able to search for tacos nearby. So a new phone is on the way, and I’ll be excited once it gets here.
There’s no denying that our phones are intimate parts of our lives nowadays. Mine is full of photos of Lucy’s and my first trip to Wales. Funny videos of my nieces are saved on it. Pics of my nephews and godsons. A series of screenshots of that one salmon recipe I know how to make. Text conversations that are full of humanity. Playlists I made early on in the pandemic because, well, what else was I going to do?
All of that will transfer to the new phone, so it’s a bit silly to be sentimental about trading in this physical artefact for a new one. Still, this is the phone through which the voices of so many people called me to say their loved one had finally passed away, or that their granddaughter had been born, or that the adoption had finally gone through. This is the phone through which Granny Mary and I started our weekly Sunday afternoon catch-ups.
Having said all that, the fact remains: despite my sentimentality, and despite my resistance to the unpleasantries of getting a new phone, it is time for a new one. Moreover, getting the new one is exactly how I’ll be able to keep paying attention to the important things I just named.
What I am wondering is if there is something true about Advent in all of this. (To acknowledge the elephant in the room before shooing it away again: building a metaphor for Advent out of this particular bit of 21st century life is problematic, though exploring those issues might be more of a Lenten reflection.) Advent is a season of preparing to meet Jesus Christ: both the Christ of the manger and the Christ of glory and judgment at the end of days. This preparation involves expectation, repentance, the courage to hope for things to come and the courage to relinquish that which we need to relinquish.
This past Sunday, we lit the second Advent candle, the Prophets’ Candle. For a while now I have been exploring an intuition that what all the prophets are trying to do is to get God’s people to see the world as it actually is, which is to say the prophets are trying to get us to see the world as God sees it. They are “preparing the way” for Christ, and thereby preparing the way for us to meet Christ. All of them, from Isaiah to John the Baptist, are doing this: they want us to pay better attention to what actually is, and this is the only way we will notice the King of Kings crying in a manger behind a barn. This is the only way we will be awake and alert when the Son of Man comes with power and great glory.
Refusing to replace my dying iPhone is a little example of how I refuse to see the world as it actually is. Moreover, spending extra energy making sure the phone and charger are arranged just so, or leaning awkwardly in my desk chair so as to keep the phone plugged in while I’m using it are both ways of letting something that doesn’t matter much (the phone) distract me from that which matters a great deal more (the people I talk to). It would only be a matter of time before the hassle of keeping the phone working crowded out the very things I need it to work for. “No time to talk today…because I don’t have the energy for the hassle of getting the phone to work!”
The point is not the old iPhone, nor is the point the new one that should arrive this week. The point is what the iPhone facilitates: being a godparent, uncle, friend, grandson, husband, priest—and moreover, paying more and better attention to the presence of Christ in the people who are on the other side of those text threads and phone calls.
This Advent, how is God calling you to pay better attention to what actually is? Where is it that you have fallen into the trap of letting that which matters less eclipse that which matters a great deal more?
The truth is that God’s future never just drops down to us out of the sky, as though God comes to us from somewhere outside the present places and times in which we live. The Son of Man coming with clouds and great glory is the same Son of Man born of Mary, nuzzled by curious farm animals, and threatened by King Herod. Paying better attention to that ordinary cluster of creatures in Bethlehem, human and angel and animal alike, is the sameas being awake and alert when Christ returns in glory and judgment. The mundane is the miraculous.
When we meet face to face the God Whom we worship, it will not be as some entirely new encounter from another realm. No, we will recognize Him precisely because He has been seeking us all the while from the people who are just on the other side of those calls and texts. In Jesus of Nazareth, God has made human nature the context in which we encounter Him.
We sometimes forget that Mary and Joseph are from the same little corner of the world Jesus is from, and that there were a whole host of other kids born in Judea and Galilee that month. They, too, bear God’s image and precisely because of the Word incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, they, too, are occasions for praise, humility, the repentance that leads to reconciliation.
Have we been grateful for them, and have we communicated that gratitude? Have we cast off the things that just don’t work anymore—be they iPhones or habits or kinds of denial—so that new habits can grow, old relationships be renewed, and new relationships form? Are we waiting on God to break in from the skies, as though from a different realm, or are we waking up to the God who is actually here?