Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How you choose to end the story

Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Many of you may be familiar with the proverbial anti-hero character of Hellboy, of both the comic and movie fame. Hellboy is a walking oxymoron, he’s what you would call a “good demon”… but in case you think all demons are actually quite ‘nice’ and ‘adorable, Hellboy’s the singular exception to the rule. In the story, the eponymous character was summoned during the last days of the Second World War by the Nazi forces in the hope that he would help them turn the tide against the Allied Forces. However, the ceremony is interrupted by a platoon of Allied Forces, and the infant demon is ‘saved’ by the kindly Professor Bruttenholm, who adopts him as his own son, and as both the comics and the movie would hint at, raised him as a Catholic. The religious and ‘Catholic’ undertones of the story are hardly subtle.

At the end of the movie, at a dramatic point of almost turning to the evil side, reverting back to his demonic nature, Hellboy is tossed the rosary that had belonged to his departed adopted father and is then reminded who he is and what he chose to be.   He then proceeds to rip the horns from his head and fight for good. The crucifix of the rosary seared its mark into the palm of Hellboy as he catches it. A kind of stigmata. The imagery is clear to us Christians, it is by the power of the Cross that we are saved, where even the greatest sinner is redeemed and a saint made. Eventually, Hellboy, who was originally summoned and sent to destroy the world would prove to be its saviour.
What? That’s ridiculous!’ you may protest. But that’s the meaning of redemption.

What’s the key of his redemption? It’s found in the answer given to a question that is raised at the beginning of the movie, “What makes a man a man?” The answer can only be found at the end of the movie. Before the closing credits, we hear another voice over narration which sums up the whole journey of Hellboy, from demon to perhaps, the most unlikely saint: “What Makes a Man a Man, A friend once wondered. Is it his origins, the way he comes to life? I don't think so. It’s the choices he makes; not how he starts things but how he decides to end.” Repentance is the key to redemption, the key that sets one on a different course in life.

This is what happened to the first son in our gospel parable. His story parallels that of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of St Luke. Like the prodigal son, the first son displays an insolence that is unimaginable. When asked to go and work in his father’s vineyard, he replies curtly and defiantly, “I will not go!” At the time of Our Lord, no son would dream of speaking to his father in this way. Indeed, a son could be killed by his father for such insolence!

However, something amazing takes place. The parable tells us that he had a change of mind, he “thought better of it and went.” This is what repentance is all about. There are two words in Greek for 'repent.' The first one is the word “metanoeo” which means regret and forsaking the evil by a change of heart. This is the word that is associated with Our Lord’s initial call, “Repent and Believe!”  But the repentance expressed by the son here is a different word. It is the word “metamelomai.” It indicates a strong remorse for one’s actions, a certain disgust with one self. It entails changing one’s mind in such a deep and radical way which eventually leads to a different direction in life. It makes the man love what he once hated, and hate what he once loved. Ultimately true repentance results in a change of actions.

The example of the first son and the movie character Hellboy both portray a quintessential and remarkably Catholic Christian message: redemption even for the ostensibly irredeemable. Repentance is the key. Repentance is capable of turning our stories around and rewriting the ending. It reminds us that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Yes, we have a history, we have our respective baggages, skeletons in our closets, our past records of failures and a heap full of mistakes!  Yet through the mercy of God, we also have a present and a future. We Catholics, therefore, reject the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. Man is not a hapless puppet of fate. He is an active player in this divine drama of his salvation. As much as everything depends on the grace of God, everything depends on the choices which we make. We can choose to turn the story around. “It’s the choices he makes, not how he starts things but how he decides to end.”

But we are not done with the parable. There is the matter of the second son. When contrasted with the first son, we see the dichotomy between talk and action. The lesson is simple: doing the will of the Father is more than simply a matter of words. It is primarily a matter of deeds. It is one thing to say one will do the will of the Father; it is another thing to actually do it. Words alone mean nothing. Sadly, many today suffer the same problem as the second son. How many young people said ‘yes’ to Christ at their confirmation, but are no longer practising their faith? How many parents, at their child’s baptism, said, “Yes, God, we will raise our child as a good Catholic?” But they didn’t follow through. How many couples have promised each other at the nuptial mass, “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honour you all the days of my life?” But at the earliest opportunity, walk out of a marriage when things turn sour.  We may have started on a promising and very good footing, but “it’s not how we start things but how we decide to end.”

The tale of the two sons provides us with both a message of hope as well as a warning. Those who labour under the weight of sin and past mistakes receive the hope that their final lot can be very different, as long as they are prepared to repent.  While those who regard themselves as virtuous and righteous, however, should not presume that their salvation is guaranteed, for they can easily lose their chance of being saved by making a big mistake in the end and die without making amends. This is what Prophet Ezekiel tells us in the First Reading, “When the upright man renounces his integrity to commit sin and dies because of this, he dies because of the evil that he himself has committed. When the sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest, he deserves to live.”

There is still the matter of the Third Son in our story. The third Son says, “Yes, Father, I will go and work in your vineyard.” And, behold, he does what he said he would do. He has no need of repentance like the first son, because He has never gone against the will of the Father. He is the Son who pleases his Father in both word and deed. The third Son is the One who told this parable. He is Jesus Christ, the enfleshed Son of God, who was perfectly obedient to the will of his Father. This is the Son who said ‘yes’ to the Father and began His mission by situating Himself at the very centre of the history of those who were lost and in need of redemption. He weaved His own history into the history of sinners in order that He may redeem that history and chart a course for a new future. This is the Son who chose to end His story by that great sacrifice on the cross;  and by His death and resurrection, He has made all things new.

We evade, we fail, we fall, we slide, we slip, we stumble, we sin, but our loving Heavenly Father is always there, ready to pick us up, to give us another chance, if only we open ourselves to repent, to change, to live in harmony with His will, to become what God has created and called us to be. Repentance takes us beyond good intentions. Repentance moves us beyond our historical baggage. What is most vital, however, is our personal openness to the grace and mercy of God. With such powerful help, even the most tawdry or sordid past can be forgotten and forgiven. It’s not how you start things but how you decide to end the story that matters.

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