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 not, 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 reassuring images that will soon be upon us—a young mother and father beside a quiet baby in a manger, a star that guides wise men in the obscurity of night. How could one who came as a child of hope return like a looming, unwanted figure? Yet 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” (Matthew 24:42-44).
The cry of Advent, the sounds of which are just starting to stir, is the cry of wakeful 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 respond to the infant that came to dwell in the midst of night and suffering? Are you ready to hear his invasive message? Are you ready to recognize God among you, the hunter, the thief, the King? During the season of Advent, we are called to keep alert, to read again the disruptive signs that someone has been here moving about the places in which we dwell. And we are called 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 a life turned upside down—and she vows to keep watch, knowing the thief will be back. In the same way, but with a thanksgiving that knows every ordinary moment to be expectant, we are called to be ready.
The child who was born in Bethlehem came quietly in the night, unbeknownst to many who dwelled near him. Yet he left prints behind in Jerusalem, and signs upon lives ever since. Like a thief, he shattered myths that proposed we were autonomous and invaded hearts 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, and suffering. He became human as we are that he might show us what it means to be truly human. “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”(1) Though the signs that Christ has been here are enough to call us to alertness, the season that reminds us to stay awake is now upon us. Like a whimper in the night, his presence in the ordinary may go unnoticed. He is gently near and knocking. Let us therefore keep watch!
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Isaiah 53:5.