The Advent Adventure of Faith: A flood of Love, a thief who gives, a New Beginning, taking our happiness seriously ...
If I were trying to persuade someone to go on an adventure of faith—which Advent is—I don’t think I would compare it to being trapped in a flood or to being burglarized in my own broken-into house. Yet that is exactly what Jesus does.
The adventure of Advent begins this Sunday with the Gospel about Noah and “those days before the flood” … days that nowadays we feel like we are reliving in so many ways. The coming of the flood that “carried them all away” ultimately put an end to all their “eating and drinking,” etc., that is, to their self-indulgence, their self-absorption, and their utter disdain of God and the things of God. St. Augustine comments that a great many years were required for the building of the ark in order “to bring disbelievers to vigilance”—but even after one hundred years of building they still “had not become vigilant enough.”
As a kid, I remember marveling at the illustrations in the Douay-Rheims Bible. The one that gave me chills depicted the rising flood waters engulfing the earth. All that remained was but a handful of panicked survivors desperately clinging to semi-submerged boulders, waving frantically as off slipped the ark into the distance.
The Greek word for “flood” is kataklysmos—yes, literally cataclysm. Sometimes we need to experience a cataclysm to goad us into paying attention to God. Not necessarily one that comes from outside. What about the cataclysms that well up from within—the ones of our own making? For example, often the result of assuming a willful, self-centered life is that we succeed in getting exactly what we want. Yet even then, we still continue to find ourselves discontented—deluged by meaninglessness, miserable, sinking, yearning to be aboard that ship sailing away. But instead, we’re left bereft, clutching some lonely rock, gutted.
We need to be inundated by something that makes us take our own happiness seriously. Advent is not a destructive flood but a flood of love. Marveling at the Incarnation, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity exclaims: “To pour out floods of love for us—this brought (Compelled him!) the Almighty from above.” The key this Advent is asking ourselves what we really want in life—going to the deepest root of our desire. St. Cyprian encourages us, “May God see our desire, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently.” That is the promise of the Advent adventure. “God fills my being to the brim with floods of His immensity” (Jessica Powers).
Jesus also compares his own coming to the coming of a thief. “Advent” means the beginning of a presence. If suddenly we detect the presence of a thief prowling nearby, everything changes. It triggers us to act. We secure our belongings, wary and watchful, on constant alert. A thief’s presence prompts us to reassess our life, take an inventory, and become ever more intentional and attentive about how we manage our house.
But it’s stressful. The impending threat of a thief causes anguish. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, writing to a friend about Advent, considers this to be an advantage. “Don’t you see how everything that happens is again and again a beginning? Couldn’t it be His beginning, since starting is always so beautiful? Celebrate Christmas in this devout feeling that perhaps Jesus needs this very anguish of yours in order to begin.”
Someone is coming … stealthily … in the darkness … with his attention riveted on our most valuable possession: our happiness. He wants to give us a new beginning. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, on her deathbed, imagined Jesus as a Thief. At his coming, she resolved not to cry in panic, Help! Help! Her plan was to call out directly to the Thief, Over here! Over here! As if to say, Go ahead: Take everything, even my life! Because all I want is You!
Jesus the Thief comes to us this Advent, not to take anything from us, but to keep us from taking our life for granted. Jesus comes, not to divest us, but to invest us with his very self.