The alarm of discovering your house has been broken into is one I imagine stays with you long after the thief has gone home. 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.
Whether you have experienced the shock of burglary and its lasting effects or the violating despair of personal loss, the 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 less taxing images that will soon be 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. How can the gospel 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 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: ‘Stay awake,’” says Christ in Mark 13:37.
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. Listen. 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.