The alarm of discovering your house or car has been broken into stays with you long after the thief has vanished. Though most are not eyewitnesses to the looming figure that wrongfully entered, victims of such crimes often report seeing shadows in every corner and silhouettes peering through their windows. Signs that someone had been there are enough to call them to alertness. Long after all the evidence was collected and my shattered car window repaired, I continued to imagine someone else’s fingerprints on my steering wheel, in my console, lingering reminders of the intrusion.
Whether you have experienced the shock of burglary and its lasting effects or the violating despair of personal loss, the Bible’s portrayal of Christ as one who will come like a thief in the night is a startling image. The description is one that seems uncouth amongst the many, far less taxing images that are now sentimentally upon us—a peaceful mother and father beside a quiet baby in a manger, a bright star that guides wise men in the obscurity of night. It seems odd that the gospel would juxtapose these images of one who comes as a child of hope and yet returns like a looming, unwanted figure. But this is the counsel from Jesus himself: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”(1)
The cry of the Christian season of Advent, the sounds of which are just starting to stir, is the cry not of sentiment but of disrupted vigilance. One of the key figures in celebrating the season, John the Baptist brings the probing message that continues to cry in urgency: “Are you ready?” Are you ready to discover this infant who came to dwell in the midst of night and suffering? Are you ready to hear his invasive message? Are you ready to discover God among you, the hunter, the thief, the King, the human? During the season of Advent, the church calls the world to look again at stories that have somehow become comfortably innocuous, to rediscover the many disruptive signs that someone has been here moving about these places we call home, to stay awake to the startling possibility of his nearness in this place even now. “I say to all,” says Christ, “Stay awake.”(2)
The owner of a house who has been disturbed once by a thief lives with the wakefulness that this thief will come again, however persuasively she is urged to see otherwise. She remembers the signs of a presence other than her own—prints left behind, a door left open, the memory of life disturbed—and she vows to keep watch, knowing, even against odds, that the thief will be back. In the same way, yet without fear, the season of Advent cries for our alertness to the vicariously human savior whose breaking into our world has charged every ordinary moment with expectation.
The child who was born in Bethlehem came quietly in the night, unbeknownst to many who dwelled near him. Like a thief, he shattered myths that proposed we were autonomous; he disrupted systems and powers and lives we thought were shielded. Yet Jesus came not to steal and destroy, but to dwell in all that overwhelms us, to live in a world groaning in death, fear, injustice, and suffering. His humanity shows us what it means to be truly human, overturning the categories we make for ourselves. Like a whimper in the night, his presence in the ordinary may go unnoticed. But he is near and knocking. Fear not and keep watch.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Matthew 24:42-44.
(2) Mark 13:37.