–Ish

First Sunday of Advent


I learned some time ago, that not everything is either just black or white. Human beings are complex creatures. Some things just need to be precise like engineering and chemistry and medicine and finance, while other things are permitted to be vague but within reason, like the weather forecast, and pop music, and awkward exits preceded by “Got to go, I have a thing …” It all comes down to consequences. In matters of life or death, there’s no question. Otherwise, it’s a test of patience. But for people who are by nature intense, it’s always life or death. So it doesn’t play out exactly as you planned, it’s not the end of the world, unless it’s the end of the world. But then, would it matter?

We all have encountered occasions when something is not a matter of life or death, but we can spare ourselves a boatload of worry and frustration if people and things were more dependable and predictable. For example, you’re either ready or you’re not ready. You’re either done or you’re not done. You’re either on time or you’re not on time, which means you’re late. You’re either sure or you’re not sure. And if you’re not sure, just go ahead and own it. You don’t say you know more or less, because that often turns out to be less than more, which means you don’t know. It’s exactly what Yoda meant in the Empire Strikes Back, when he tells Luke Skywalker, “Do … or do not. There is no try.” Or that other argument about being with child. No one can be “just a little pregnant.” You either are or you’re not. So it made sense to me, in an effort to convey clarity, and say what I mean and mean what I say, that there must be a precise answer to every question. It just makes sense. Then I discovered that essential diplomatic skill known as prevarication.

In college I learned the meaning and use of “—ish.” Most people know about “—ish” sooner. Not me. There’s nothing like it in Filipino. It’s a suffix attached to otherwise precise words and realities to make them less precise, in effect dulling the certainty that word or idea is meant to convey to begin with. “What time will you be here? 10AM—ish,” which is an outright though disarming plea to be excused for potentially being late. It is very much an informality. You never add “—ish” when speaking to a police officer, or a judge, or your professors, or employers, or religious superiors, or your parents when you miss your curfew. That would be ill-advised and dangerous.

And then we read about things in Sacred Scripture like we read today, things we are clearly told will come, frightening things, signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth floods, fires, plagues, earthquakes, tsunamis (most likely never heard of in the Mediterranean), persecution, war, death, and destruction, things we don’t want to blow out of proportion because they were written a long time ago, more than likely referencing other events that actually did take place historically a long time ago as well. The synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—took final form long after the Jewish Revolt against Rome, the fall of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. It makes complete sense that the early Christian community would interpret these events to point to God’s prerogative of dealing righteous judgment on the unfaithful and the unrepentant. But we’ve been reading this same gospel account for many generations now, despite the human race through the years enduring many terrible and disastrous cataclysms, intense weather-related calamities, severe floods, earthquakes, famines, and fires, devastating diseases and plagues, and all manner of persecution by the powerful against the threat of minority races, cultures, and ethnic peoples, violent conflicts and wars fueled by extremist ideology, nationalism, religion, and paranoia. And we are still here. So why such images of disaster and devastation?

Well, let’s ask the experts who employ threats of disaster and devastation. Have you ever (and you don’t have to answer out loud and implicate yourself—it’s enough that you can admit it in your heart), have you ever used such threats of disaster and devastation to elicit certain more desirable behavior from those in your care? Or if you have not actively employed such schemes yourself, have you ever condoned their use? And don’t look all innocent like you don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s that time of year, and as the holiday music fills the air, we have no trouble singing along, “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why …” Or the one from many a childhood, “Wait till your father gets home.” The one that strikes me the harshest is “Don’t make me send you to Fr. Rolo.” For some people, it may be the detention pad, or the switch in the corner, or the belt on the hook, or the wooden spoon in the kitchen, or that look of daggers that keeps certain untoward inclinations in check.

I am not suggesting that the gospel writer would resort to such unenlightened and childish methods, or maybe I am. When you want to persuade the inattentive and the complacent to care about the things you care about, and gentle encouragement and reason and the promise of some future glory is not keeping them focused, you might have to scrape the bottom of the barrel and kick into high gear with images to impress their tender young minds. If you think about it, there would be no need to convince those who get it and are already there. You’re really just pushing the stragglers along.

What it all comes down to is that we are prepared. We know the end will come at some point, but we don’t know when. And we are reminded not to be taken in when we hear people claiming otherwise. Jesus tells us only the Father knows. He does not know, and neither does his mother. And being ready is not supposed to be a sliding scale. You either are or you’re not. There is no “—ish.” So in this Advent season, or what the rest of the secular world calls the Christmas shopping season, our focus is not really some specific date on the calendar. Because ready or not, that day will arrive. And whatever happens, we will likely still be here. Instead, Advent is a time of getting ready for the day of redemption, when our God will fulfill the promise he made to the house of Israel and Judah. The prophet Jeremiah tells us, “In those days, in that time, I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land.”[1] We might argue that historically that event has already taken place. It will never happen again. So we need to think of it in the light of his eventual return at the end of time.

“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. … Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”[2] It is only a threat if we have reason to fear. But why should we fear One whose love for us is beyond measure, who comes to fulfill God’s promises? Will we be ready? Either we will or we won’t. There is no “—ish.”

Rolo B Castillo © 2018


[1]Jeremiah 33: 14-15

[2]Luke 21: 34, 36