Recognizing a Thief in the Night
The weather in Massachusetts has been unseasonably warm this fall, and so it was perfect for a boat ride with a friend last month, even though it was a mid-October Sunday evening. In fact, this is a great time to be on the water, since the foliage is beautiful. But something strange happened while we were out on the lake, watching the sunset. I noticed several figures dressed in black in my friend’s yard. “Who’s at your house?” I asked her. “Nobody should be there,” she said with anxiety. “Well, it looks like there are a bunch of ninjas in your yard!” There were several strange men, all dressed in black as if they were part of a bank heist. I immediately put the motor full throttle and headed towards the house. The men, it turned out, were wearing black wetsuits because they were hired to take her dock out of the water. Luckily, we arrived at the shore before they disappeared, and although they were unable to reassemble the dock, they did help tie down the boat so that it wouldn’t drift off during the (very windy!) night.
This incident gives me a new perspective on St. Paul’s words that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” Concerning the dock removal, any reputable company would have called the house first and made an appointment. They certainly wouldn’t show up on a Sunday evening without any warning and remove the dock while the customer was still out on the water! They came like thieves (and they looked like thieves too!) and we were entirely unprepared for their arrival. (Needless to say, my friend ended her business with them. The Lord might arrive unannounced, but the guys in wetsuits had better make an appointment!)
The interesting thing about the men who came to remove the dock is not that we didn’t expect them, but that we didn’t recognize them. In fact, if they had made an appointment, then we would have recognized who they were precisely because we expected them. All this makes me think about Christ’s second coming a bit differently. Perhaps the point of an unexpected arrival has to do with recognition. If we knew when Christ would come again, we would expect him and would surely recognize him. Not knowing when he is coming, though, makes it less likely that we will recognize him in this superficial way. We will have to know him deeply in order to recognize him.
Here is another way of thinking about it. When I travel, I send for an Uber or a Lyft, and a driver whom I don’t know is dispatched to me. Yet, because I expect him/her and they expect me, we recognize each other. I know this is my ride. They know I am the customer. With Jesus, we do not have an appointed time and place. We won’t be able to get by with such a superficial and impersonal knowledge of him. Only those who really know him will recognize him. “I know my sheep,” he said, “and my sheep know me” (cf. John 10:14).
This gives us a different sense of how to be prepared for his coming. Instead of thinking, “Have I been good?” or “Have I been bad?” (the Santa Claus questions, I like to call them), we might begin to examine our consciences this way: Do I really know Jesus? Am I getting to know Him better through prayer and the sacraments? Am I becoming familiar with Him through Scripture, especially the Gospels? And, perhaps most of all, do I recognize Him in the people around me?
What if Jesus comes back and looks nothing like our statues, paintings, and holy cards? Will we recognize him? Will we recognize him in his “most distressing disguise,” as St. Teresa of Calcutta referred to his presence in the poor and rejected? Colin Raye asked in a song, “What If Jesus Comes Back Like That?” where he imagines Jesus returning as a homeless person or a crack baby. He asks, “will we let him in or turn our back?”
When Jesus comes as a thief in the night, we won’t be expecting him. Perhaps that doesn’t refer to timing at all. Maybe it refers to recognition. If Jesus comes back as that panhandler whom we ignore and try to avoid, we won’t be expecting him that way, so will we recognize him? If he comes back as that family member we no longer talk to, will we recognize him? If he comes back as that boss or that ex whom we can’t forgive, will we recognize him? Picture your worst enemy or the person you look down on the most. If you and I are not learning to acknowledge and love that person, to see Christ in that person, then we might not recognize Christ when he returns!
Theologian Johann Baptist Metz refers to the “apocalyptic goad” of these end-of-time Scripture passages. They should give us a jolt towards greater conversion. In other words, we had better learn to love more completely, so that we don’t completely miss Love when He returns.