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From the Nov/Dec, 2013 issue of Touchstone


Like a Thief in the Night by Anthony Esolen


Like a Thief in the Night

by Anthony Esolen

Aslan the Lion has breathed the breath of life, calling, "Narnia, Narnia, Narnia! Awake!" It is the beginning of a world. The animals awake to reason and the spirit, and they begin to speak, each in his distinctive way—even to make jokes! Yet the cowardly and wicked magician, Uncle Andrew, hears nothing but the jabbering of wild animals. He is terrified, and Aslan gives him the mercy of unconsciousness, the only mercy that such as he can know.

C. S. Lewis suggests that the flames of hell are how the wicked experience the glory of Paradise, for God is the Selfsame, and should we descend into the pit, yet is he there. The fault lies not in the glory, but in the wicked.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine attended a funeral Mass for a murdered man. The victim had spent his adult life poaching from other men's fishing nets and lobster traps, often cutting their lines. He had never done an honest day's work. He cast his thieving in the teeth of the men he robbed. The local police gave up on him. When one of the fishery officials tried to nail him, he waited till the official was out of town, then scrambled up on the man's roof and drilled fifty holes in the shingles and the wood. The holes weren't visible until the next hard rain fell, and the house and the furniture were ruined.

So the thief was given a funeral Mass, and the priest consoled his cousins by reminding them that this man (most likely having gone to his death cursing all the way, said my friend) was in the hands of a merciful God. Indeed. He might have found it more comfortable to have fallen into the hands of an apathetic god, or a capricious god, or a thieving god—but I can't vouch for the state of any man's soul.

I can vouch for the love and the hatred which the Son of Man meets, because he has revealed it, not only in the events of his life, but in his prophecies of the times to come. Jesus said that the Son of Man would come like a thief in the night, and that's not just some quaint Aramaic way of saying "suddenly." No one whose life is bound up in worldly goods wants to hear about a thief in the night. That thief comes to rob you blind. The rich man with his stuffed granaries did not want to hear the Divine Thief say to him, "You fool! Even this night your life will be required of you." The wicked steward, drunken, beating his fellow servants and abusing the maids, does not want to hear that the mad, fantastical Master of dark corners has come home. The approach of the Unscheduled Bridegroom brings joy to the virgins who were eagerly awaiting him, and dismay to the virgins who weren't.

The old prophet Simeon said of the child Jesus that he would be a "sign of contradiction," and even in his childhood this is so, as he brings anticipatory joy to the astrologers from the east, and fear and jealousy to Herod. He breathes his last upon Calvary, and his enemies gloat, but the pagan centurion, looking upon him with love born of fear, says, "Surely this man was the Son of God."

So in the dark night of Advent we await the coming of the true light that enlightens every man; yet we should remember that light is like cool, refreshing waters for those who love the light, and like the glare of an enemy to those who hate it. We see this stark ambivalence in the most majestic of our Advent hymns, "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending":

Lo! He comes, with clouds descending,
Once for our salvation slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train;
Alleluia, alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

That trochaic meter thunders on, as the hymnodist Charles Wesley turns not to a different event, but to another group of beholders:

Every eye shall now behold him,
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall their true Messiah see.

That is astonishing. The key line is the penultimate one, with its repeated phrase. Those who love the Lord and those who hate him look upon the same God of mercy, the same King who set aside his glory and became obedient unto death. God is not one God for me and another God for thee: he is the same. The inarticulate wail of the wicked is their alleluia.

When we shall see him, we will see the signs of his love for us—or the signs of our hatred for him. They are the same signs:

Those dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless jubilation
To his ransomed worshipers:
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

What is the difference? To the sinner, he comes like a thief; to the repentant, he comes like the liberator of a city in the hands of its enemy; and then he comes not to parley, but to batter down the walls and to conquer. Then the shock of the battering Tree of Life sounds to the self-believers like the meaningless crash of destruction, but to the faithful like the joyous thunder of a victorious army. The difference, as Lewis again put it, is only between those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done":

Yea, amen! Let all adore thee,
High on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia, Alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone. •

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“Like a Thief in the Night” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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