If the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. (Matthew 24:43)
Two points regarding this sentence uttered by Jesus Christ:
1. Petty thefts occurred every night in ancient Israel. Most people lived in small homes made of mud bricks. Your roof served as the bedroom. A thief could quietly claw a hole in the mud at the foundation of the house, crawl inside, and steal your valuables as you slept. Then you wake up in the morning, climb down the ladder to start making breakfast, and all your pots and pans have disappeared! Not to mention your figs and wine.
2. In this parable, the thief who breaks into the house represents…The Lord. The Son of Man. The Messiah. God’s anointed. Maybe that seems strange, God stealing things. Doesn’t mean thou shalt not steal no longer counts as a commandment. Thou still shalt not steal. But God will come like a thief. To steal what?
That appears to be the question. What does baby Jesus come to steal? Little baby Whose birthday comes in exactly four weeks, the newborn Son of Man. He came suddenly into this world–to steal something.
To answer this question, let’s consider this: One image appears repeatedly in the first reading and psalm of today’s Holy Mass. The Temple of the Lord, the house of Jacob, the house of David, the great stronghold of the city of Jerusalem: not a mud-hut susceptible to burglars. Rather, a fortress of peace.
“May peace be within your walls! …From His holy mountain, God will instruct us in His ways, and we shall beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!” Peace.
We might complain that the western world has lost the Christian faith and no longer knows the reason for the season. But everyone knows: Christmas means peace. The newborn child comes to Bethlehem as the Prince of Peace. God Almighty, the awesome, the terrifyingly holy: He has come to the world as a defenseless baby, armed not with spears and arrows, or flaming thunderbolts, but only with ‘eyes as clear as centuries.’*
What does He come to steal, this gentle baby Son of Man? Doesn’t His arrival, in and of itself, steal our pretexts for hating each other? Doesn’t He take away our reasons for violence? Doesn’t baby Jesus invade our little egos, so as to clear out all the self-serving nonsense that we keep stored in there, that sets me against my brother?
I may find myself desperately attached to the idea of myself as a bigshot. I may base my entire worldview on “us good people” vs. “those dirty people.” Maybe I have convinced myself that I deserve all the fanciest new voice-activated gadgets, like the little canister that I can talk to and make my lawn-sprinklers come on, at my command. And I’ve decided I will use it against my annoying mailman.
But the little baby of Bethlehem comes to dig into us, into the little mud-huts of our souls, and steal every self-aggrandizing delusion out of our egos. When I contemplate the Prince of Peace, laid in an animals’ manger; when I reflect that this is God Almighty–my sense of my bigshot self has to go out the window.
I meditate on Our Lady nursing the cooing baby, and I have to recognize: God has acted with this kind of peaceful compassion towards me. Even though I certainly don’t deserve it. Even though God really has every right to distrust me or even smack me in the face. But instead He comes in peace.
So how can I hate my neighbor? How can I lash out at that bad driver? How can I continue to pile up loot and chase after silly trifles, without giving at thought to other peoples’ struggles?
The Prince of Peace came to turn enemies into friends. St. Augustine described how we will, please God, sing Alleluia together, in heaven. Here’s how the saint put it:
O, what a happy alleluia there–how carefree, how safe from all opposition, where nobody will be an enemy, where no one will ever cease to be a friend!
A very clever thief, this baby. We contemplate Him, born of a penniless mother, in a stable with the animals. The bottomless peace of His humble birth steals every pretext I could possibly come up with to harbor resentment in my heart. He fleeces my soul of all the empty pride I have piled up there, the lies and half-truths that make me think I’m better than so-and-so. Just by being born in peace, the Son of Man steals all that and carries it away like a thief in the night.
Then, all we have left is: His divine love. These little mud-huts we have for souls can become His everlasting Temple, the stronghold of God’s peace.
* from Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time”