But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. - Matt. 24:43 NRSV
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. - 1 Thess. 5:2 NRSV
The subject was Advent, the season comprised of the four Sundays before Christmas. Some of us were discussing how "Advent isn't what it used to be." Advent, meaning arrival or coming, wasn't originally intended as a four-week harangue on how materialism has swallowed the meaning of Christmas. Advent was a time of preparation for the eschaton - the end of things. Many of our lectionary passages for Advent still reflect this teaching of being prepared for the arrival of Christ at a moment's notice. Depending on the tradition in which you grew up, this second advent for which we're preparing could be an understanding of a literal "second coming" or, perhaps, it could be death itself in which Jesus comes to us to take us to the place prepared for us (John 14:3).
However, over the past forty years, the beginning of the celebration of Christmas has moved from a few days before Christmas to the day after Halloween. And, unlike the Christian calendar which stretches the Christmas celebration through Epiphany (January 6), our cultural celebration ends at midnight Christmas day. Lost in this cultural shuffle is a profound opportunity to consider what it means to live in such a way that we are prepared for that day of the Lord which will come "like a thief in the night."
"The problem is," one colleague said, "that the thief just doesn't scare us anymore." I think he's right. Perhaps the reason the "thief in the night" no longer scares us ("us" meaning middle class and above, comfortable U.S. citizens) is because we have physical and spiritual alarm systems that ensure the "thief in the night" will not enter our abodes or our hearts.
We (meaning the category of folks I described above) don't generally live with a fear of a "thief" in the form of INS agents raiding and separating families of illegal immigrants brought here by meat packing companies like some Midwest states. We have little fear of a "thief in the night" in the form of acts of outrageous violence attended with runaway disease and starvation as are found in several war-torn third-world nations.
Perhaps the reason the "thief in the night" doesn't concern us is because we haven't really taken time to do two things: 1) identify what really does scare us; and, 2) learn to identify with the millions who regularly experience a "thief in the night" who robs them of the life God intends for humanity. Even more troubling: perhaps the reality and regularity of these events are themselves the thief in the night alarming us all to the dangers of a divided, violent world. But, like the sirens I hear going by my well-secured home every night attending to the tragedies against which I'm comfortably separated, these alarms we've learned to largely ignore thinking they don't really concern us...yet.
If our Advent/Christmas spirituality never really progresses beyond a superficial, yet guilt-laden, call to remember "the reason for the season," we will have missed the opportunity to consider the profound meaning of a God whose unimaginable love for us could not prevent that same God from jumping into the messy reality of this world to become one of us. And, perhaps more tragically, we will have totally ignored the depth of preparedness to which we're called as we await the "thief in the night."