By: Rev. Paul Scalia
Perhaps you saw Apple’s holiday-themed iPhone commercial entitled “Misunderstood.” The ad focuses on a stereotypical surly teenager as he goes through his family’s idyllic Christmas celebrations. During every activity – baking, decorating the tree, ice-skating, sledding – he has his face buried in his iPhone, away from his family. A familiar scene, we think. But a plot twist comes at the end. On Christmas morning, when everyone gathers to open presents, he halts the action to show the video that he had been recording all along on his iPhone. Eyes fill with tears and his relatives hug him as they realize that he was not out of touch with his family after all. He was using technology not to get away from them but for them. It is actually quite moving…until you think about it.
Ultimately, it is nonsense. The boy concludes his video with a shot of himself looking out from the TV screen toward his family. That last scene actually confirms our first impression: this boy cannot interact with others except through a screen. The face-to-face communication proper to humans is foreign to him. The commercial wants us to feel bad about our suspicions, but his clever iPhone video vindicates them. He was doing what we suspected all along: substituting technological transactions for real human interaction.
Most interesting is that this commercial should appear around Christmas – a feast that is all about face-to-face communication. God assumes our human nature and is born of Mary, precisely so that we can look upon Him — O Come let us adore Him! – and He upon us. He had sent messengers before. He had established symbols of His presence (e.g. the Ark, the Temple). But that was not enough. He desired to interact not merely through the prophets and the law but directly, face-to-face. He came to reveal more than a message. He came to give Himself. “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son” (Heb 1:1-2).
Our Lord’s Incarnation fulfills one of man’s deepest desires: to see God face-to-face. “How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” The Psalmist laments (Ps 13:1). “Thy face, Lord, do I seek. Hide not thy face from me” (Ps 27:8-9). And again, “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Ps 42:2) But no one can see God and live. God assumes our human nature, a human body, a human face, so that we can behold Him. And in response God desires to see us with unveiled faces (cf. 2 Cor 3:18). “Let me see your face,” He says (Song 2:14).
O Come, let us adore Him! To behold God satisfies all human longings. But do we really want it? Or are we not like the surly teenager with his face in his iPhone? A face-to-face relationship can be dangerous. It puts us on the spot and calls us out of ourselves. It challenges us to an authenticity that our fallen human nature fears. We risk being seen as we are, not as we would have others see us. We fear being found out for phonies. Such intimacy threatens our nice little delusion of sufficiency. A screen – technological or otherwise – is much safer. We can hide behind it and have a make believe relationship, comfortable in a world of our own making.
As the boy does in the commercial, so we do with God – keeping something between ourselves and Him, avoiding face-to-face interaction. Some people avoid Him altogether. But others practice a devout avoidance, using even good things to keep Him at arm’s length. Our works of charity, our knowledge of the faith, our liturgical precision, even our prayers – all good in themselves – we can use instead as a screen, as something put in place of intimacy. Rather than leading us to a relationship with God, they substitute for it.
This was the error of the Pharisees. Observant, devout, and faithful, they had replaced personal devotion with mere external adherence to the law. Our Lord had to knock the most famous of them flat on his back to get his attention – to catch his eye, as it were. Years later, after listing all his godly credentials, Saint Paul would write, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). Who he was and what he had done no longer mattered. All that mattered was knowing Jesus as Lord.
So, if the Apple commercial fails to convince, it serves as a good cautionary tale. If we find the boy to be removed and disconnected, substituting a screen for real relationships, we should examine our lives to see what screens we place between ourselves and Jesus — the One Who longs to see us face-to-face and is born of Mary to make that a reality.